Additive manufacturing (AM) refers to the manufacturing of 3D objects—components, parts, or entire products—by systematically adding material, layer upon layer, according to software-based instructions (usually a CAD program). The materials used could be metal, polymer, or ceramics.
AM technology has many advantages over conventional manufacturing, including the ability to innovate faster and produce intricate, lightweight, and durable designs with low material wastage and at a moderate cost. As such, AM is increasingly used for various industrial applications. The most prominent use case has been rapid prototyping. However, other use cases are picking up, including tooling, masking, jigs, and fixtures as well as the development of end-use parts.
The widespread adoption of AM technology was triggered by the expiry of several early patents during the 2009–2014 period. This was followed by an influx of companies developing proprietary technologies aimed at overcoming the drawbacks of AM like improving print speed to enable high-volume production. These proprietary AM technologies combined with AI, robotics, and cloud connectivity are taking the industry to new heights.
The most popular segment in the AM industry appears to be on-demand manufacturing. Players in this segment offer even small-scale manufacturers a viable entry point into the AM ecosystem, enabling the use of 3D printing tech without the upfront set-up cost. Most incumbents also operate in this segment and enable customers to access these services virtually. Typically, this means that customers can request quotes and order 3D-printed products and parts online. Incumbents regard these digital platforms as key differentiators; for instance, on-demand manufacturer FATHOM has patented its online price quotation system for 3D-printed objects.
The 3D printers segment has also fared well, with most well-established disruptors operating in this segment. Companies that develop 3D printer systems typically offer their own software and materials while operating through a network of distributors. They also partner with other companies to jointly develop technologies and complementary offerings. For example, incumbent TRUMPF has partnered with material technology startup Equispheres to use its AM powders on TRUMPF’s 3D printers.
Most incumbents entered the additive manufacturing (AM) space after several patents in fused deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) expired during 2009–2014, reducing the cost of the technology.
HP, a leader in the 2D printer market, was one of the earliest to actively engage in the space, expanding its portfolio from 2D to 3D printers by leveraging favorable market dynamics. Comparatively, manufacturing conglomerates like Siemens and General Electric (GE) first started using AM tech to achieve productivity gains in their operations. It was only later that they started offering AM solutions to third parties, growing through in-house tech development and acquisitions. Through a combination of in-house expertise and partnerships, these incumbents offer a range of products from selling 3D printers, software, and materials to offering on-demand manufacturing services.
The majority of incumbents, like Fast Radius, Xometry, Shapeways, Fictiv, Proto Labs, and FATHOM, operate only in the on-demand manufacturing segment by offering digital manufacturing services. These companies use AM tech as well as other conventional manufacturing technologies like CNC machining and injection molding.
Other incumbents include engineering software providers like ANSYS and Autodesk as well as specialty material providers for manufacturers like Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) and PyroGenesis.