3D Printing Is Shaping The Landscape of Manufacturing

Ever since 3D printing made its debut with consumer-focused, small-scale applications, the technology has continued to develop. Rather than building portable, but very pricey, printers for recreational home use, industrial heavyweights are utilizing 3D metal printing to increase efficiency and speed in their manufacturing plants.

General Electric leads the charge with large investments into acquisitions and in-house development. The company is investing $1.6bn over the next year to acquire two companies in Sweden and Germany and to expand their operations. The plan is to grow the 3D printing business unit exponentially, so further investment is on the horizon. With its current investments, GE will become the 2nd largest manufacturer of additive manufacturing devices globally. The company commands 21% of global market share, with EOS, a German early adopter, leading the market with 25% of market share by number of manufactured devices.

Several market-leading companies are seeing a boom in interest in their technology. 3D metal printing has the potential to exponentially increase productivity; and industrial conglomerates are pouncing on the opportunity. GE executives plan to increase 3D printing revenue from $300m today to $1bn by 2020.

The conglomerate owns a factory in the Czech Republic where advanced propeller plane engines are developed. Prototypes have replaced 855 parts traditionally required for these engines with just 12 printed parts, substantially boosting manufacturing productivity and speed.

General Electric’s aggressive moves come in response to competitors becoming more active in the space. Siemens has acquired a German company and opened a development center of its own in Sweden. The company’s focus lies on parts for gas turbines, where it competes with GE.

United Technology is expanding its additive manufacturing capabilities in airplane engine manufacturing. The technology is currently implemented to rapidly produce prototypes and accelerate R&D. Expanding capacity in the future may well lead to full-scale implementation in the manufacturing process. General Electric moved into the space before either Siemens or UTC did, so both competitors have some catching up to do. Acquisitions that include advanced technologies may well allow the three giants to leapfrog each other for the foreseeable future.

Current applications for 3D printing focus on gaining market share in engine and turbine markets. As development continues, it is likely that metal printing will become increasingly important in other manufacturing applications, working its way back to the consumer side – and manufacturers will benefit from increased efficiency, easier parts replacement, and lower rates of imperfections.

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