Beyond the Hype: 3D Printing in 2021

The hype surrounding 3D printing achieved a new high in 2020. But will interest be sustained in 2021, especially in the printing industry? Will 3D printing move past the early adopters to the fast followers?

3D printing suffers from futurist Roy Amara’s adage that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Indeed, that was the case in 2013, when media hype overestimated the extent and timing of 3D printing’s use in business and the home. The global interest in 3D printing (3DP) first peaked in May 2013, according to Google Trends data, but was one-third higher in April 2020:


Graph source: Google Trends

The 2020 peak occurred as hospitals, governments and companies scrambled to attack the COVID-19 pandemic. The hype was mainly driven by global supply chain shortages in a wide range of medical supplies, causing healthcare institutions, governments, the public and, yes, printing companies to seek new sources of medical devices and testing supplies.

Notably, a general awareness of 3DP’s current capabilities also drove last year’s hype and sustains interest to this day. Today’s workforce includes engineers and designers trained in 3D printing. More vendors have entered the market since 2013, including well-known 2D press manufacturers such as HP, Mimaki, Ricoh, and Xerox, improving 3DP’s material range, build quality and productivity. Aerospace, automotive, dental and medical device industries, among others, produce 3D printed finished goods in large quantities.

Today, 3D printing’s reality exceeds the hype. 

A December 2020 survey of 2,525 companies in 12 countries conducted for Ultimaker found 71% of respondents used 3DP for prototyping, while 70% printed production tools, jigs and fixtures. Significantly, 55% reported producing end-use parts with 3D printing. 

Yet, 3DP adoption by the printing industry remains low. One particularly telling example was the recent “virtual drupa” event for the global print and packaging community. Two hundred and thirty-three conference sessions were held, with nine on 3D printing. Yet those few 3DP sessions, with topics such as “Manufacturing of Parts for Pressure Equipment,” were irrelevant to print and packaging companies.

The question remains, “Should you utilize 3D printing or 3D printed parts in your business?” The answer is, “Absolutely, yes.” The very supply chain issues that drove last year’s hype remain, if not more so. No doubt you are aware of part shortages and price increases in everything from building materials to automobile electronics, as well as suppliers who were forced out of business by the pandemic. For example, Xerox used its ElemX printer to produce a replacement metal bracket for a 15-year-old iGen press because its supplier ceased production. Not only was the part 3D printed within four hours, but 3D printing also cut the cost by 21%.

3DP’s Impact on the Printing Industry

In the near term, press and bindery modifications are 3D printing’s most significant impact on the industry. New, custom designs enable printing and packaging companies to offer unique printed materials, such as unusual folds, shapes or imprinted images, and make temporary or permanent replacements for original parts. Most printing companies will use 3D print service bureaus to make the parts to their specifications, while some will produce prototypes with in-house 3D printers. 

In the short term, wide-format and other printing companies that service the event and site signage industries will add 3D printing to their portfolio. Employing monochrome and color 3DP devices from providers such as HP, Massivit, Mimaki and Stratasys, these companies will produce physical items that complement the 2D printing they have been offering. Think back to when you attended sporting events and conventions in person, and the statues, figurines and other shapes abounded. Astute printing company owners and managers will invest in the devices that enable them to offer a complete event package. Every event requires new forms to complement the new printed materials, representing a potential annuity income stream.

Long term, a small number of 2D printing companies will offer 3D printing services. These firms will mainly be existing trade suppliers with printing company clients who already subcontract event and site materials. However, opportunistic printing companies will view 3DP services as a viable offering for their specific industries, such as wide-format graphics. Indeed, while most established 3DP printer manufacturers saw a decline in equipment sales last year, global 3D printing service provider revenue grew 7.1% to nearly $5.3 billion:

 Wohlers2021Chart Service Providers Lg

3DP Trends in 2021

From a market perspective, the material range will expand across all 3D printing technologies. We will see more composites and metals become available and at a lower cost for finished goods. This trend bodes well for printing companies who modify their equipment or deal with shortages of their suppliers’ spare parts. 

With overall printing industry revenue continuing to decline (February 2021 commercial printing shipments had the lowest monthly value, $6.34 billion, in more than five years), cost control and cost-cutting enabled by 3D printing are increasingly important. The industry’s use of 3D printing for custom tooling, jigs and fixtures that cut operating costs and improve finished good quality will accelerate. 

Sculpteo’s 2021 edition of its annual “The State of 3D Printing,” with more than 1,900 respondents worldwide, illustrates the use of 3D printing and its potential. The results reflect 3D printing’s diverse user base with power users who have significant investments in and experience using the technology producing more end-use items.

 Sculpteo2021Survey Results

Graph source: Sculpteo

Printing companies must monitor the hype surrounding 3D printer vendors, acquiring 3D printed parts as needed and purchasing printers when appropriate. But be aware of the impact that 3D print vendors founders’ and investors’ efforts to reap the rewards of their investments by issuing IPOs and merging with special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) will have on the market. Overall, I expect the hype will remain in the range depicted in the Google Trends chart for 2021.

Your challenge will be to look past the hype to 3D printing’s reality and its potential within your company.

Automotive Modification