Shipments of 3D printers are set to double next year, and more than double after that, reaching worldwide shipments of more than 2.3 million by 2018, according to forecasts from research firm Gartner.
3D printing is still somewhat of a niche technology, but the 3D printer market is now reaching an inflection point, according to Gartner, which predicts that global shipments will reach 217,350 units in 2015, up from 108,151 during 2014.
Furthermore, the firm expects to see shipments more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time worldwide shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million units.
The factors driving this growth are the falling purchase price of 'consumer' 3D devices that are based on extrusion technologies, Gartner said, while the market for 'enterprise' 3D printing is also heating up due to the viability of 3D printing technologies for prototyping and manufacturing, also coupled with lower 3D printer costs, improved quality and a wider range of materials.
"The high material extrusion shipment growth numbers are basically driving the 3D printer forecast," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner.
"New providers are entering the market, sometimes directly, sometimes through crowdfunding campaigns, on what seems like a daily basis. These providers are leveraging the expiration of early extrusion technology patents to make low-cost, low-priced devices targeted mainly at consumers."
During the summer, electronics distributor RS Components held a 3D printing event where it showed off many of the devices (see picture) it now sells through its catalogue and online.
However, Basiliere warned that the fierce competition to attract consumers could have a detrimental effect, forcing vendor margins so low that it threatens the long-term viability of many of them.
"Whether these start-ups and small companies have sufficient revenue to cover not only their production and overhead costs but also service, sales, channel development, research and development, and owners' profit remains to be seen," he said.
Meanwhile, vendors working with more exotic technologies such as directed-energy deposition and powder bed fusion will be able to hold prices as demand for their equipment rises, he added, rather than get involved in a price war to attract and retain enterprise buyers.
Breaking down the figures by price band, Gartner said that 3D printers costing less than $1,000 made up 11.6 percent of the total market in 2014, but that these will expand to account for 28.1 percent of the $1-to-$2,500 range by 2018.
In the longer term, Gartner said it expects the differences in growth rate between the price bands to fade as more organisations employ low-end and mid-range printers for testing and experimentation.
However, it is still likely to be consumer uptake that drives 3D printing in the short term, and this is already starting to be seen in developments such as plug-and-print capability to make it easier for users to just hit the print button to successfully produce a 3D item.
Features such as locked-in materials available only in vendor-specific cartridges, as previously happened in the world of 2D page printers, will maximise the likelihood that materials will work well first time. As a result, 10 percent of the 3D printers priced below $1,000 are likely to have plug-and-print capability by 2016, according to Basiliere.
"This trend will accelerate as the market consisting primarily of early adopters who grew up with an open-source approach without lock-ins evolves into a market in which average consumers dominate," he said.
"While the early adopters will rage at the perversion of the 3D printer open-source ethos, the vast majority of mainstream consumers will demand the simple and consistent operation that plug-and-print can provide."
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