Pet Rocks, Hula Hoops and 3D Printing?

Research shows 3D printing is no fad.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a 30-year-old technology, but it remains an enigma to many manufacturers who wonder if it’s a fad or if it has applications beyond product design and prototyping.

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3D printing is becoming an integral part of industrial manufacturing and supply chains.

I can tell you that 3D printing is the real deal. And it’s fast becoming an integral part of industrial manufacturing and supply chains.

Companies waiting for further proof risk missing out on what could be an amazing business opportunity. Worse, they risk seeing their businesses torpedoed by one of the biggest technological disrupters of the last century.

UPS recently commissioned the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) to conduct in-depth interviews with eight U.S. companies – including some in the high-tech, consumer electronics and automotive industries – that are early or recent adopters of 3D printing.

Click here to read about UPS And Fast Radius launching the Uber of manufacturing using 3D printing.

Click here to read about UPS and Fast Radius launching the “Uber” of manufacturing using 3D printing.

This report, which also features published research from thought leaders and analysts, shows 3D printing has finally hit its stride. Consider the mounting evidence:

  • In 2014, the total global 3D printing market reached an estimated value of $5.7 billion – up 30.8 percent from 2013. The global 3D printing market is on track to exceed $21 billion by 2020, according to Wohlers Associates.
  • Demand for 3D printers, materials and services will exceed $10 billion by 2018, according to Wohlers Associates.

Despite 3D printing’s staggering growth, it’s also true that 3D-printed manufactured goods represent less than 1 percent of all manufactured products in the United States. But let’s put that in the context of another game-changing phenomenon: e-commerce’s disruption of the retail industry.

E-commerce makes up only 5 to 10 percent of total retail sales. But does anyone really think consumers are going to abandon the convenience of online shopping? Look at it this way: Capturing just 5 percent of global manufacturing capacity would make 3D printing a $640 billion enterprise. That’s according to Wohlers Associates.

So instead of pondering 3D printing’s future, the better question is: Which industries are most likely to benefit? High-tech and healthcare spring to mind.

Smartphone manufacturers already use 3D printing to build upgradeable hardware and internal parts. Some medical devices companies also have embraced 3D printing. For example, there are more than 10 million 3D-printed hearing aids in circulation worldwide today.

[Also by Alan Amling: On the Road to Disruption]

Beyond design and prototyping

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Like any emerging technology, there are barriers to adopting 3D printing.

A 2014 Gartner survey found prototyping and product development are the main uses for 3D printing among companies with 100 or more employees. But the same survey also revealed that organizations are moving beyond design and prototyping to embrace 3D printing as a way to create short-run production quantities of finished products.

In fact, parts manufacturing is now the fastest-growing 3D printing application. A 2015 Wohlers Report showed 3D printing for parts production grew from virtually zero in 2003 to 42.6 percent of global 3D-printed product and service revenue in 2014.

Capture of 3D printing download box

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Gartner Research Director Pete Basiliere predicts that by 2018 “almost 50 percent of consumer, heavy industry and life sciences manufacturers will use 3D printing to produce parts for the items they consume, sell or service.”

[Also by Alan Amling: TED@UPS: What Happens When Pigs Fly?]

Overcoming challenges

Like any emerging technology, there are barriers to adopting 3D printing. We call those the Three S’s: Speed, Size and Supplies.

Slow equipment speed is the top barrier to wider adoption of 3D printing. And larger items require bigger bed sizes for production. Supplies also are limited, with polymers and plastics getting the most use. For 3D adoption to grow, new materials will need to emerge.

And, of course, some would-be adopters still think 3D printing is too expensive.

But some industries manage challenges better than others. Our research uncovered the following perspectives:

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The survey expanded on the advantages 3D printing brings to manufacturers.

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As the 3D printing industry continues to innovate to meet challenges, there is no shortage of users and ambassadors like me who sing its praises.

While some skeptics may continue to debate its future, the reality is that 3D printing is destined for important applications across the supply chain. goldbrown2

An executive summary of the UPS report is available at UPS Pressroom.


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Alan Amling is Vice President of Corporate Strategy at UPS. He previously oversaw marketing efforts for UPS's global logistics and distribution services.

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