Additive Manufacturing How are 3D printer manufacturers fairing at the moment?

Author / Editor: Simone Käfer* / Ahlam Rais

Difficult situations in 2020 have given additive manufacturing a boost. Some of its benefits have become clear, and awareness has increased. But are more machines being purchased as well?

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Are more 3D printers being sold again?
Are more 3D printers being sold again?
(Source: © oatawa - stock.adobe.com)

During the fall of 2020, associations and societies of additive manufacturing recorded a rise in membership figures or at least more substantial interest. The online offering of training courses, lectures, and information of all kinds from the industry has risen sharply. Ultimaker's Sentiment Index paints a similar picture. The Dutch desktop 3D printer manufacturer surveyed more than 2,500 people from various industries worldwide. The result: awareness of additive manufacturing increased by 71 %. But is this interest also reflected in the sales of machine manufacturers?

Not according to Ampower's market report. Compiled from 300 interviews of machine suppliers and users, the 3D metal printing market is stagnant, and equipment sales have declined significantly. We asked machine manufacturers about the current situation.

How has the past year been for AM machine manufacturers?

Some had less business than usual, others more. Why is that? There have been downturns in some user industries, which of course, are mirrored by machine manufacturers. For example, 3D Systems has felt a significant decline in its otherwise strong commercial aerospace and jewelry market segments. With a new focus on healthcare and industry in general and corresponding subcategories, the U.S.-based company launched in 2021. With a focus on offerings related to medical technology and healthcare, each company did well last year; those that lacked this focus made up for it.

Some machine builders reported that machine orders had shifted from the first half of the year to the second or right through 2021, with Farsoon experiencing a 25 % drop in sales. "But," said Dr. Dirk Simon, managing director of Farsoon Europe, "in Europe, we grew faster than the market last year compared to 2019." So, the Chinese SLS machine manufacturer has gained market share. Contrary to revenue declines, SLM Solutions reports a 26 % growth in sales. HP also calls 2020 "a good year."

With hardly any physical meetings possible, customer service has changed. Questions were often asked in writing, meetings were virtual, and machine installations took place remotely. Everything was possible, but not always as efficient as a physical meeting could have been.

Were there any investments in 2020?

Yes. In addition to restructuring and repositioning, Xjet, Stratasys, and SLM Solutions, for example, have invested heavily in research and development. Some have also dedicated time and money to their marketing concepts and sales structures. HP has used the time to set up a competence center with some partners to provide customers with industry-specific advice.

The pandemic has triggered a new hype. Will more 3D printers be bought now?

We often read last year that the industry was affected by supply bottlenecks. Productions were at a standstill because there was a shortage of parts, not so with AM machine manufacturers. There were no supply bottlenecks for them. But they benefit from the problems of others. Fast, easy changeovers, and on-site production, and on-demand delivery, are the issues that have helped additive manufacturing score over conventional manufacturing processes and the traditional supply chain over the past year. It's paying off. "Several market segments are recovering, and the high interest in the flexibility of additive manufacturing continues," says Andreas Langfeld, president, EMEA, Stratasys. In the words of Israeli machine manufacturer Xjet, "Companies have realised that they need faster, more flexible and distributed manufacturing processes. The potential is still there, he said: "The manufacturing market is a 12 trillion dollar market, but even after 30 years of 3D printing, AM holds only a fraction of the market."

But will machines be sold? "We expect significant growth across the industry," says Dirk Ackermann, CFO of SLM Solutions. Markus Glasser, Senior Vice President EMEA at EOS, doesn't get more specific than that: "Through the interplay of these factors, I can say that our business in EMEA is developing strongly." The factors he addresses are the supply chain issue, the approach of decentralized manufacturing, and the restructuring of sales at EOS. In summary, more revenue from machine sales is at least hoped for and expected for most. Not only at Farsoon. Although there is an increase in the medical technology sector, the order situation has sung in other areas, reports Simon. It's all balancing out, he says.

If everyone has now recognized the benefits of AM, surely there are more entrants than before the pandemic?

On this subject, the experiences of AM machine manufacturers to date vary. At SLM Solutions, it is the small startups that are now coming forward, Farsoon is more likely to receive orders from OEMs and Tier1 suppliers. At EOS, the situation is quite different: "In and of itself, I see rather little change compared to the pre-pandemic period," says Glasser. "The exceptions are aerospace and consumer products, and in the case of the latter, especially applications in the context of sports and lifestyle - here we see more inquiries." Raffi Beglarian, responsible for HP's 3D printing business, in turn, reports, "We are generally experiencing higher demand - from newcomers as well as from companies that have already had their first experience with additive manufacturing." Stratasys and 3D Systems are also experiencing the same. The situation is somewhat more specific for Xjet. The Israelis see strong interest in the ceramics sector, and their machines would mainly be in demand for reverse engineering applications.

Are there any products or services that are in exceptionally high demand?

A summary answer would be yes, all of them. "As the economy begins to recover, we see demand for our AM solutions across a wide range of industries," said Reji Puthenveetil, executive vice president, Industrial Solutions, at 3D Systems. It speaks of the diversity of user industries and the varying needs of customers, as well as the broad offerings of AM machine manufacturers that a different product is in greater demand at each AM company. Despite higher demand in general, Puthenveetil has seen increased interest, particularly in the healthcare sector and semiconductor manufacturing. Similarly, Stratasys is noticing a peak in PPE, or personal protective equipment.

Ackermann of SLM Solutions sees multilaser machines driving growth as additive manufacturing is increasingly used for volume production. Beglarian disagrees with the statement. That's because, at HP, it's predominantly customised products for which their machines would be used. Following the popularity of metals, Xjet is now seeing increased demand for technical ceramics. At EOS, more inquiries are being recorded at its "Additive Minds Academy."

From which industries is the increased demand coming from?

"I see strong growth in the oil & gas and aerospace sectors in the near and medium-term, as well as high relevance for the topics of mass customization and sustainability," says Glasser of EOS. Likewise, the personalization of products is an issue. "This includes, for example, medical aids that can be perfectly matched to their wearer, and in the automotive industry, vehicle parts such as fascia panels can be personalized," continues Beglarian from HP. In addition to the classic application industries of medical technology, aerospace, and automotive, there are increasing inquiries from the electronics manufacturing and mechanical engineering sectors.

The statements of the AM machine manufacturers are more or less in line with the results of the survey conducted by the VDMA Working Group Additive Manufacturing in February this year. More than 50 members, who together cover the entire AM process chain, took part. 10 % of them had a drop in sales of more than 20 % in the second half of 2020, whereas 12 % could increase their sales by more than 20 %. Little to no losses were experienced by 62 % of German AM manufacturers. Most of the survey participants (78 %) expect the market to develop better this year.

* *Editor for Additive Manufacturing

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