Today, 3-D printing is a very small part of the metals industry, but it is growing rapidly and this market is expected to be worth as much as $10 billion by 2030 to 2035. Already, a number of healthcare and aerospace companies have adopted the technology. Some are running pilots to see how 3-D metal printing can contribute to their operations while others are using 3-D printers to produce metal prototypes in-house.
We expect the current low-scale experiments to shift to broader industrial adoption within the next five to ten years, especially at the high end of the metals market. By significantly lowering production costs and lead times for a variety of metal parts, 3-D printing has the potential to reshape the industry structure.
The main benefits of 3-D printing are a shorter value chain, cost and time reductions through elimination of assembly steps, greater customization and design freedom, and minimal waste. But the technology still has significant challenges to overcome. These include the high costs of metal powder and 3-D printers for large-scale production, as well as significant constraints on the dimensions of printed parts. Additionally, most printers cannot mix materials within one item. However, R&D activities by corporations and academics are rapidly addressing these limitations.
Industry players can enter this promising market in several ways: powder production, 3-D printing end products, servicing 3-D printer operations, and manufacturing 3-D printers. For the metals value chain, perhaps the biggest opportunity lies in producing high-performing metal powders or innovative products with enhanced properties. As the technology increasingly takes hold, we expect powder producers and creators of the product designs to hold the greatest power in the value chain, with those in the middle increasingly squeezed.
At a time of high volatility in the cost of raw materials, metal manufacturers are eyeing 3-D printing with intense interest—and for good reason. By significantly lowering production costs and lead times for a variety of metal parts, 3-D printing has the potential to transform the value chain in metal production and reshape the industry’s power dynamics.
The technology, which works by layering rather than eliminating material to create a shape (hence it is also known as additive manufacturing), has several important selling points. First, it requires only three major steps: metal production, powder production, and product printing (with some finishing). Additionally, 3-D printing largely eliminates waste and expands the available design options, allowing manufacturers to adapt products to use less material, incorporate improved mechanical properties, avoid assembly steps, and create new geometries.
The process also makes small production batches more cost-effective, broadening the range of manufacturing options and enabling better customization to end-user needs. For example, a company can locate a 3-D printer at the product’s final destination, such as the maintenance department for the production of spare parts, lowering both logistical challenges and the high cost of ordering complex one-off parts from suppliers.
While plastics have garnered most of the attention to date, it is metals that have been the fastest-growing 3-D–printing category since 2012. Given the increasing need for metal producers to differentiate themselves through their cost structures, supply chain performance, or products, we believe it is only a matter of time before the technology becomes a transformative force in the industry. It has the potential not only to revolutionize product manufacturing but to create new ecosystems of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Fully realizing this promise will take time, however. In speed of high-volume production, cost of raw materials, quality consistency, and breadth of end-product sizes, 3-D printers still lag behind conventional methods. Nevertheless, 3-D printing is rapidly advancing on all those fronts.
Currently, 3-D printing comprises only a few basis points of the metals market, but analysts expect that its growth trajectory—currently akin to rates usually associated with tech markets rather than metals—will take annual revenues to the region of $10 billion by 2030 to 2035. Already, the technology is being used to produce nickel, nickel alloys, and other high-value metals. Industries such as healthcare and aerospace are at the forefront of embracing 3-D printing to gain the precision, low weight, and fast turn-around their customers require—and for which those customers are willing to pay extra. As the technology matures and costs drop, we expect adoption to spread.