I’m a big fan of additive manufacturing, or as it is often called, 3D printing. I myself own three FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D printers, which are basically automated hot-glue guns, and these are just a hobby for me, but additive manufacturing is starting to become a very potentially disruptive technology that needs to be carefully watched and evaluated.
When it comes to lasers, additive manufacturing and lasers intersect in some interesting ways. First, many types of additive manufacturing use various types of lasers as components in additive manufacturing printers. But additive manufacturing can also potentially displace some conventional (subtractive) laser manufacturing processes which are in use today. The multi-billion-dollar question is, in the end, will additive manufacturing be a laser friend or laser foe?
Today, it’s estimated that worldwide, additive manufactured products only represent 0.05% of the worldwide manufacturing market, and less than 1% of goods manufactured in the United States. But let’s focus a bit on just lasers. This year, I have forecast that worldwide material processing laser revenue will reach $3.0B worldwide, and of that, I believe $65M will be the revenue from lasers used for additive processing. This means that the percentage of lasers used in additive manufacturing verses the total of lasers in all of manufacturing as a whole in terms of revenue is roughly 2.2%. This is very encouraging, but keep in-mind, when you are talking about lasers, you are talking about equipment revenue not manufacturing revenue, and since additive manufacturing is a quite new technology, it’s natural for new equipment outlays to be relatively high, so not a complete apples-to-apples comparison.
What is the real problem when looking ahead at additive manufacturing? It’s that additive manufacturing technology is quickly evolving and it’s not 100% clear how it all will shake-out. There are two main additive manufacturing process technologies today that use a laser; 1) Stereolithography (SLA) where a resin is solidified when exposed to a light-source (sometimes a laser), and 2) Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and its cousins where a laser beam is scanned across a bed of material powder and melted into a solid object, layer by layer.
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