A report released this week revealed a spike in the adoption of metal additive-manufacturing systems – an increase due largely to a growing number of new companies.

According to the Wohlers Report 2018, an annual study of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing global market, an estimated 1,768 “metal AM” systems were sold in 2017, compared to 983 systems in 2016.

What explains the nearly 80% increase?

Global manufacturers – especially within the medical and dental industry – are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of producing metal parts via 3D printing, said Terry Wohlers, president of the Fort Collins, CO consulting firm Wohlers Associates.

Metal AM tools are frequently being used today to create orthopedic implants and caps for crowns and bridges, for example. The technology is also increasingly supporting the creation of automotive and aerospace parts, and industrial equipment.

Last year, engineers at HRL Laboratories 3D-printed an “unweldable” metal – a desirable material for aircraft and auto components.

The consultancy’s researchers discovered, rather unexpectedly, that 135 companies around the world produced and sold industrial AM systems in 2017, up from 97 companies in 2016.

“We were somewhat surprised by the rapid growth in metal AM systems sales,” Wohlers told Tech Briefs. “Also, we were surprised by the continued growth in the number of new manufacturers of industrial AM systems.”

A graph showing the annual rise in metal AM system sales, ending with 2017. (Source: Wohlers Report 2018)

New system manufacturers, like the Boston, MA-based Desktop Metal and many China-headquartered companies, are rapidly entering the AM market, while releasing machines with open material platforms, faster print speeds, and lower pricing.

Some customers of metal AM systems, including laser-based powder bed fusion technologies, are beginning to hit a stride that requires more capacity and the purchase of multiple machines.

“This is different than in the past when one or two machines were sufficient for testing and qualification of the materials and processes,” Wohlers told Tech Briefs.

Despite the dramatic rise in metal AM system installations, more work is ahead, according to the researchers – especially to ensure that parts are made properly.

“Many would agree that additional work is needed to more fully develop metal AM process monitoring and quality assurance measures,” said Wohlers, adding that post-process automation is also required to reduce labor and cost.

Wohlers Associates provides technical, market, and strategic advice on the new developments and trends in rapid product development and AM.

Seventy-six co-authors and contributors from 32 countries shared data and expertise to form the basis of analysis in Wohlers Report 2018.

What do you think? Have you used metal AM? Share your comments and questions below.