The global market for 3D printing products and services was estimated to be worth USD 12.6 billion in 2020, and expected to grow by 17% a year until 2026, to reach USD 37.2 billion in 2026 , as illustrated in Figure 1. The largest 3D printing industries are found in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Mexico, Japan, and Switzerland .
Figure 1: 3D printing market value prediction
Research carried out by Thomas Alsop in 2020 showed that prototyping was the most common use case of 3D printing worldwide, as indicated by 68% of respondents. Furthermore, 59% of the respondents in the same research indicated that they used 3D printing for proof of concept, while 49% of the respondents used the technology for production .
Many applications have been initiated around the world to take advantage of 3D printing technology. Some of the applications of 3D printing technology can be found in healthcare, where the technology can help in the development of personalised medical equipment . A brilliant example in the market is the 3D printed hearing aid by Sonova. Sonova has employed the industrial use of 3D printing technology to produce in-the-ear hearing aids for patients since 2001. Sonova mass-produces hundreds of thousands of custom-made hearing aids each year using 3D printing technology . In Malawi and Kenya, CDC Group, the UK government’s development finance organisation, and LafargeHolcim, a European construction materials multinational, launched a project called 14trees aimed at 3D-printing houses and schools in a quarter of the time it would typically take. Russian design company Delo has begun the production of a 3D printed seat called ‘rechair’ built with recycled plastic waste from yoghurt cups.
3D printing will change the network global value chains. Amidst the quantum leap forward in the adoption of additive manufacturing in production, 3D printing will influence the global value chain. Research suggests that the adoption of 3D printing technology in each industry is linked to the development of shorter, more dispersed global value chains . As a result, in some industries 3D printing technology is likely to draw production value chains closer to end-users, making them more local.
3D printed parts especially in prototyping and other use cases of additive manufacturing are printed at the place of production, no longer at the site of overseas suppliers, hence reducing the importance of imported inputs . This is cheaper (because material consumption is lower and transport costs are eliminated), faster (because transport routes are saved) and more flexible (because product-specific features can be addressed immediately).
3D printing offers personalised production and mass customisation opportunities. Personalised production is becoming more popular as they enable producers to target their audience at an individual level. In research conducted by Deloitte, more than 50% of consumers expressed interest in purchasing personalised products and services . However, mass customisation is a challenging trend for traditional manufacturing methods. One solution is to use digital manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing. Several industries like automotive, consumer goods and health care have begun to explore the use of 3D printing for personalised production and mass customisation due to the benefits of extreme flexibility and digitalised production.
3D printing is also used in the consumer goods industry to create footwear that is customised to the wearer’s feet. According to SmarTech Analysis, footwear 3D printing revenues currently account for about 0.3% of worldwide footwear market revenues and are expected to climb to 1.5 % by 2029. 3D printing in footwear is expected to become a $9 billion revenue over the next ten years . Midsoles are a major example of 3D printing in footwear. Dr Scholl’s custom 3D-printed shoe inserts through a partnership with Wiivv, a technology company, offers personalised 3D printed insoles to customers. Aside from footwear, a few firms also provide customised 3D-printed eyeglasses and jewellery. In the automotive industry, the luxury market is one segment of the industry already adopting 3D printing for mass customisation. Luxury carmakers use additive manufacturing to deliver designs tailored to customer requirements. For example, MINI, launched a 3D printing customisation service, “MINI Yours Customised” in 2018 allowing customers to customize their MINI vehicles using 3D printing and laser lettering .
Due to the recent emergence of 3D printing and its multiple applications, global standards and regulations are still nascent. At the multilateral level, there is no agreement governing the specificities of 3D printing. However, that does not mean that the sector is unregulated. The current multilateral framework has several rules that, due to their technologically neutral approach, apply as well to 3D printing. As highlighted by Kommerskollegium (2016), “[the] shifts in how and where goods are manufactured and how they are sold do not lead to any major needs for regulatory changes” .
The switch from a goods-centred production to a service one does entail some changes. The main shift is that several goods-related rules become irrelevant for the governing of parts of the production chain. 3D printing can involve several different services activities, including
- designing and engineering computer-aided design (CAD) files,
- transferring this digital information,
- establishing online marketplaces where CAD files can be traded (and created by the collaboration between producer(s) and customer(s)),
- establishing and running contract manufacturing facilities, including retail-oriented print shops and FabLabs.
These activities are covered under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and this marks a clear shift in focus between agreements, particularly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
At the national level, the governments of China, the European Commission, and the United States have taken the lead in supporting 3D printing. In the case of China, the country released in 2016 ‘Intelligent Manufacturing Development Plan’ (2016-2020), which demands further development in the areas of smart equipment and key technologies, standardisation, smart manufacturing tests and it promotes intelligent digital transformation. The plan was followed up shortly after by the ‘Additive Manufacturing Industry Development Action Plan’ (2017-2020), formulated as part of the strategic roadmap ‘Made in China 2025’, aiming to strengthen and further develop the 3D printing sector in China. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) pledged to increase its financial support for companies, promote diverse financing models and financial leasing, and encourage foreign organisations to base their R&D on 3D-printing technologies in China.  The EU, on the other hand, has implemented a series of technology-neutral regulations, covering the health and safety aspects of the production of medical devices, that, due to that nature, apply directly to 3D printing (such as the requirement to meet specific quality standards, etc.). In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although it does not regulate 3D printers, regulates the medical products made via 3D printing.
Environmental Impact of 3D printing is expected to be positive. Although 3D printing technology is still in the making it has the potential to have a significant positive impact on the environment . However, this new technology must be thoroughly examined to identify its impact on our environment.
Few materials are used in production, due to the 3D printing layer-by-layer manufacturing procedure. The additive manufacturing process employs just the quantity of raw materials required to construct a product, enabling the optimisation of raw materials. Significant resources are saved thereby reducing the creation of industrial waste. 3D printing also has a positive impact on carbon footprint . It allows localised production and does not rely on complex manufacturing and assembly supply chains. This decreases the need to transfer items created in distant countries, therefore, lowers the emissions associated with that transportation.
The environmental benefits of additive manufacturing are undeniable, but the industry is still confronted with some challenges. In 2021 research, it was observed that during the build phase, the energy consumption of additive manufacturing (AM) methods is higher than subtractive manufacturing (SM) methods, especially when the component complexity is high . Furthermore, when moved past the prototyping stage to large scale production, additive manufacturing is generally slower than the traditional manufacturing process .
Additive manufacturing opens new customisable possibilities in production networks through digitalised production methods. It is expected that the global additive manufacturing market will shift from prototyping to mass production of parts and accessories, companies will be able to build finished products on a broad scale using additive manufacturing technologies by 2030 according to forecasts . Certain manufacturing industries are unlikely to experience the impact of this new technology now or in near future. Natural materials such as tobacco, leather, natural textiles, etc. which are used to manufacture products are unfitting for 3D printing, hence, have a low tendency of being affected. International Economics Consulting (IEC) is assisting the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC) with technical support to investigate the potential of building a 3D printing filament industry in Mauritius. Using market research, export potential analysis, and policy and regulation review, our team will assess the potential of developing the 3D printing industry in Mauritius and the region.
Paul Baker is the founder and CEO of IEC. He is a consultant for various governments in developed and developing countries, an adviser on global corporate strategies to multinationals, and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. Paul is an expert in the Working Group of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Digital Flows Initiatives, an Expert in the WEF/WTO’s TradeTech Working Group on AI, IOT, Blockchain and Digital Identities for trade, and is on the Board of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific’s Trade Intelligence tools. He is also a member of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Committee on Trade.
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