The road ahead for 3-D printers

As 3-D printers become faster, easier to use, handle multiple materials, and print active components or systems, they will find use beyond rapid prototyping.

By: Alan Earls and Vinod Baya

The technology for 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has existed in some form since the 1980s. However, the technology has not been capable enough or cost-effective for most end-product or high-volume commercial manufacturing. Expectations are running high that these shortcomings are about to change.

Several technology trends are feeding these expectations. An emerging class of mid-level 3-D printers is starting to offer many highend system features in a desktop form factor at lower price points. Printer speeds are increasing across the product spectrum; at least one high-end system under development could print up to 500 times faster than today’s top machines. And key patents are about to expire, a development likely to hasten the pace of innovation.

In a recent PwC survey of more than 100 industrial manufacturers, two-thirds were already using 3-D printing. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Prototyping has driven the adoption of 3-D printing so far. Future opportunities 3D printers chiefly used for prototyping

Figure 1: Prototyping has driven the adoption of 3-D printing so far. Future opportunities 3D printers chiefly used for prototyping

Most were just experimenting or using it only for rapid prototyping, which has been 3-D printing’s center of gravity for most of its history. Canalys, a market research firm, anticipates changes ahead and predicts the global market for 3-D printers and services will grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion in 2018, a CAGR of 45.7 percent.1

Despite these trends, the 3-D printing industry faces challenges. Rapid prototyping will remain important but is not the game-changer that will expand the technology into high-volume use cases. The industry should pivot to printing more fully functional and finished products or components in volumes that greatly outnumber the volumes of prototypes produced. For example, some makers of hearing aids and dental braces have adopted the technology for finished products. In addition, 3-D printing should supplement or supplant products and components manufactured traditionally and create items that can be manufactured in no other way.

Technology for 3-D printing will advance through loosely coordinated development in three areas: printers and printing methods, software to design and print, and materials used in printing.

To evolve their design and manufacturing strategies, many industry sectors are using 3-D printing solutions already in the market. (See Table 1.) Technology for 3-D printing will advance through loosely coordinated development in three areas: printers and printing methods, software to design and print, and materials used in printing. This issue of the PwC Technology Forecast examines each of these areas. This article assesses 3-D printer and printing method trends in performance, the management of multiple materials, and capabilities for producing finished products. Future articles will examine the software and the materials themselves.

Table 1: Emerging uses of 3-D printing in the different industry sectors.

Industry sector

Some emerging and near-term future uses of 3-D printing

and industrial

  • Consolidate many components into a single complex part
  • Create production tooling
  • Produce spare parts and components
  • Faster product development cycle with rapid prototyping, form and fit testing


  • Create complex geometry parts not possible with traditional manufacturing • Control density, stiffness, and other material properties of a part; also grade such properties over a part • Create lighter parts


  • Plan surgery using precise anatomical models based on CT scan or MRI
  • Develop custom orthopedic implants and prosthetics
  • Use 3-D printed cadavers for medical training
  • Bioprint live tissues for testing during drug development


  • Create custom toys, jewelry, games, home decorations, and other products
  • Print spare or replacement parts for auto or home repair, for example


  • Create complex geometry and shape not possible with traditional manufacturing
  • Create custom protective gear for better fit and safety
  • Create custom spike plates for soccer shoes based on biomechanical data
  • Create multi-color and multi-material prototypes for product testing

The emerging shape of the 3-D printer industry

In 3-D printing, hundreds or thousands of layers of material are “printed” layer upon layer using various materials, or “inks,”2 most commonly plastic polymers and metals. The many different printing technologies are generally material dependent. (See the sidebar “3-D printing technologies.”) For instance, fused filament fabrication (FFF) is used with plastics, stereolithography with photosensitive polymers, laser sintering with metals, and so on.

3-D printing technologies

The printers must be improved in three areas to seize the opportunities that exist beyond today’s predominant use case of rapid prototyping:

Performance: Improve key performance characteristics, such as speed, resolution, autonomous operation, ease of use, reliability, and repeatability.

Multi-material capability and diversity: Incorporate multiple types of materials, including the ability to mix materials while printing a single object.

Finished products: Provide the ability to print fully functional and active systems that incorporate many modules, such as embedded sensors, batteries, electronics, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and others.

Today’s 3-D printers are concentrated at two ends of a spectrum: high cost–high capability and low cost–low capability. (See Figure 2.) High-end printers are generally targeted at enterprises and 3-D printing service bureaus; low-end printers, which are often derivatives of open source RepRap3 printers, are targeted at consumers and hobbyists.

Figure 2: The emerging market for printers is defining a new category that has high capability at lower cost.

Figure 2: The emerging market for printers is defining a new category that has high capability at lower cost

During the past year, a new class of printers in the middle has emerged. These printers from new entrants and established vendors have many of the higher-end capabilities at lower prices. For example, printers from FSL3D and Formlabs deliver higher resolution and smaller size using stereolithography technology and are priced at a few thousand dollars. Printers from MarkForged offer the ability to print using carbon fiber composites in a desktop form factor for less than $5,000. CubeJet from 3D Systems is priced under $5,000, can print in multiple colors, and brings professional features to a lower price point.4

Gartner predicts that 3D printers with the value (capabilities and performance) that is demanded by businesses and other organizations will be available for less than $1,000 by 2016.5 It is fair to expect that printer improvements will accelerate in the next few years, although the degree and nature of these changes will vary considerably across printing technologies and vendors.

Emerging trends in 3-D printer performance

Technology for 3-D printing will advance through loosely coordinated development in three areas: printers and printing methods, software to design and print, and materials used in printing.

While many characteristics define a printer’s performance, the key challenges are speed and ease of use.

Printers can be expected to get faster

Even for simple products, 3-D printing still takes too long—usually hours and sometimes days. Incremental improvements as well as new methods that have the potential for an order of magnitude change will help printers meet the challenge for greater speed. “There are lots of ways to improve speed by using higher-quality components and by optimizing the designs and movement of the lasers,” says Andrew Boggeri, lead engineer at FSL3D, a provider of desktop stereolithography printers. For instance, Form 1+, a stereolithography printer from Formlabs, uses lasers that are four times more powerful to print up to 50 percent faster than the previous generation printer Form 1.6

Most of today’s printers use a single printhead to deposit material. Adding more printheads that print at the same time can increase speed by depositing material faster while incorporating multiple materials or multiple colors of the same material. Multiple heads can also make many copies of the same design in the time it takes to print one. With such innovation, print speed can increase more or less linearly as the number of heads increases. At the hobbyist end, Robox sells a dual nozzle printer that the company says can print three times faster than single nozzle printers.

Speed is especially a challenge when printing larger objects. Large objects require more material to be pushed through the printer nozzle, which generally has a set rate for processing material. A partnership between Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Incorporated, a machine tool manufacturer, is addressing this challenge.7 The organizations are developing a large-scale additive manufacturing system. Their design will combine larger nozzles for faster polymer deposition, high-speed laser cutters that handle work areas in feet rather than inches, and high-speed motors to accelerate the pace at which printer heads are moved into position. The result will be a system capable of printing polymer components as much as 10 times larger, and at speeds 200 to 500 times faster than existing additive machines.

To control the movement of the printer head, 3-D printers use different approaches or architectures. Cartesian printers, which move a printhead in two dimensions on a plane, are the popular configuration today. Deltabot printers, also called Delta robot printers, use parallelograms in the arms like a robot. (See Figure 3.) “The Delta printers are going to basically take over all the Cartesian printers, because they have some significant benefits, one of which is speed,” predicts Joshua Pearce, associate professor at Michigan Technological University (MTU) and an active developer of open source 3-D printers. Delta configuration allows for higher speed, because the printheads are lighter and they use shorter paths from one point to another.

Figure 3: Cartesian and Delta configuration in printers.

Figure 3: Cartesian and Delta configuration in printers

Printers will become more automated and easier to use

“These [hobbyist 3D] printers all need considerably more personal upkeep than people are accustomed to with appliances.” —Prof. Joshua Pearce, Michigan Tech University

Existing 3-D printers perform many tasks autonomously. However, some printers at the hobbyist end require that printheads be cleaned periodically, that beds be properly leveled, and that a human tinker and supervise to minimize errors. “These printers all need considerably more personal upkeep than people are accustomed to with appliances,” Pearce says. The potential to reduce or eliminate this human element is real and will be a key area of innovation over the next few years.

Automating the features that cause many of the common errors and reliability concerns, such as support structure generation, part orientation, and others, will likely advance the ease of use in hobbyist printers. For instance, a print run can be wasted if the build platform is not level. Many printers, such as those from Robox, XYZprinting, and MakerBot, include autoleveling where the printer calibrates itself to the platform. Expected in the future is a feedback system that provides real-time monitoring of the printing process, that detects defects or deviation from the design (as specified in a 3-D model generated by a CAD [computer-aided design] tool), and that allows appropriate intervention. Together, such features will likely improve the reliability and repeatability of the printing process.

Emerging trends in how 3-D printers deal with materials

Most printers work with only one type of material—plastic, metal, ceramic, wood, or a biological material. To create more useful products and expand the market, 3-D printers will need to process multiple material types within a single build cycle. Various factors, mostly related to materials themselves, make this requirement challenging. For example, most processes are built around an ideal material that responds to a narrow range of temperature inputs or light frequency. Using heat or light, printers often liquefy or solidify substances to manipulate the material into specific forms. The characteristics that make this manipulation work exclude many other potential materials—at least at the current level of sophistication.

The pursuit of multi-material capability will favor certain printing methods over others. FFF printing has high potential to accommodate multiple materials without greatly extending the existing technology, because printing heads can be added to handle other polymers. Multihead printers are available from Hyrel 3D, XYZprinting, and MakerBot for less than a few thousand dollars.

“For multi-material printing, inkjetlike technology such as Voxeljet is the present and the future.” —Andrew Boggeri, FSL3D

“For multi-material printing, inkjet-like technology such as Voxeljet is the present and the future,” Boggeri predicts. Methods such as selective laser sintering and others use inkjet technology. This technology can handle multiple materials within a range that can be delivered as a powdered “base,” because it already uses multiple printheads. As a result, parts or assemblies made from different materials can be printed in a single print run. Today this technology is accessible at the high end from Voxeljet, Stratasys, 3D Systems, and others.

Inkjet printing for 2-D printers has been around since the 1970s, but was adopted for 3-D printing only about seven years ago by Objet (now part of Stratasys) in a process the company calls PolyJet. By jetting two or more base materials in varying combinations, this technology allows the creation of new material properties that span from rigid plastic to rubber-like and from opaque to transparent. More recently, the technology also allows the printing of multiple colors. For example, the Stratasys Objet500 Connex3 printer supports multi-material and multi-color 3-D printing. A printed part can have as many as 14 distinct material properties and 10 color palettes.8

Today, multi-material printers work for a single family of materials—polymers, for instance—and are largely used for prototyping so designers can check form, function, fit, and feel. Figure 4 shows multi-material prototypes of a handspring and headphones made by the Connex3 printer.

Figure 4: The prototype handspring in this picture combines soft and hard polymer material of different colors. The prototype set of headphones combines multiple materials in multiple colors.

Figure 4: The prototype handspring in this picture combines soft and hard polymer material of different colors. The prototype set of headphones combines multiple materials in multiple colors.
Advances are still needed to combine different families of materials, such as metals and plastics, in a single print cycle.

Advances are still needed to combine different families of materials, such as metals and plastics, in a single print cycle. Developments on this front are in very early stages in research labs,9 and it will likely be more than five years before products are offered.

Emerging trends in printing complete systems

Farther out is the ability to print complete systems or subsystems. Emerging multimaterial capabilities will help, since most finished products are made from more than one material. However, challenges extend to the ability to embed components such as sensors, electronics, and batteries, so everything can be printed in one build. R&D efforts are under way in a number of areas, including materials, printing methods, and combining additive and traditional methods of manufacturing.

The key materials science challenge is to develop inks that can be the basis for printing different types of products, be they sensors, electronics, or batteries. For example, Xerox PARC is developing inks so circuits, antennas, and RFID tags can be printed and applied directly to a product.10 Similarly, Professor Jennifer A. Lewis at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has developed the basic building block of tiny lithium-ion batteries as inks that can be printed.11

The future of additive manufacturing is not limited to inanimate objects. Lewis’s team has developed bio-inks to make living tissues. The team uses multiple printheads and the customized inks to create complex living tissues, complete with tiny blood vessels.12 Some pharmaceutical companies are already using 3-D printed tissue for testing drugs.

Bio-printing typically uses two inks. One is the biological material and the other is hydrogel that provides the environment where the tissue and cells grow. The breakthrough to add blood vessels was the development of a third ink that has an unusual property: it melts as it cools, not as it warms. This property allowed scientists to print an interconnected network of filaments and then melt them by chilling the material. The liquid is siphoned out to create a network of hollow tubes, or vessels, inside the tissue. Such creations are possible only with 3-D printing, generating new possibilities beyond traditional manufacturing.

Can CIOs be a catalyst for taking advantage of 3-D printing?

The printing of complete systems is not limited to a nano or microscopic scale. Working with Aurora Flight Sciences and Stratasys, Optomec has printed complete airplane wings, including electronics and sensors, for small drones.13 Each wing was printed with a Stratasys FFF printer. The sensors and circuitry were printed directly onto the wing using Optomec’s aerosol jet system. Whereas the inkjet process prints on a flat surface, depositing tiny drops of ink from a printhead less than a millimeter away, the aerosol jet process atomizes the nanoparticlebased print material into tiny droplets and focuses them via a nozzle on a print surface that can be curved or an irregular shape. The print surface can be kept 5 millimeters or more away. This capability enables the printing of electronic features smaller than a hundredth of a millimeter.

Some approaches may combine 3-D printing with other manufacturing methods. For example, iRobot has filed a patent for a fully automated robotic 3-D printer, including multiple manipulators and milling, drilling, and other processes to make final products.14

Pace of innovation suggests high expectations will be met

The 3-D printer market is transforming rapidly. Robust innovation at established vendors and among entrepreneurs and hobbyists is providing a test ground for filling the market with more midrange systems that bring enterprise-class capabilities at much lower prices.

Another key factor that will likely change soon is the control that patent holders have had over specific techniques. When key patents for FFF expired five years ago, the open source community rapidly incorporated the techniques in low-cost printers, triggering improvements in speed, quality, resolution, and ease of use.

Likewise, many laser-sintering patents are set to expire in 2014. “I would expect rapid innovation to occur in 3-D printers that use laser sintering, sort of what happened with the RepRap and FFF method,” Pearce says. Communities such as Metalbot and OpenSLS already have open source efforts to create desktop-based laser-sintering printers. If the pace of innovation is as rapid as it was with FFF printers, then less-expensive desktop metal printers may appear within a few years.

Today’s market for 3-D printers and services is still largely bifurcated—at the low end are limited-function offerings of interest to hobbyists. At the high end are expensive printers that have a limited total available market. The key for market growth is the continuing development of printers in the middle price range to achieve advances in performance, in multi-material capability, and in printing complete systems. PwC expects these continuing developments to open the door to a disruptive expansion in the market.

1 “Canalys, “3D printing market to grow to US$16.2 billion in 2018,” news release, March 31, 2014,

2 The term inks refers to all material in 3-D printing that is either extruded or jetted out of a nozzle. The term is not limited to inkjet-based printing methods.

3 RepRap was one of the first desktop 3-D printers. The RepRap concept applies to any machine that can replicate itself, which the RepRap 3-D printer can do. For more details, see

4 Brian Heater, “The CubeJet promises pro-level 3D printing in a consumer form factor for under $5,000,” Engadget, January 7, 2014,

5 Pete Basiliere, How 3-D Printing Disrupts Business and Creates New Opportunities, Gartner G00249922, April 2014.

6 Signe Brewster, “Formlabs reveals the Form 1+, a faster and more reliable SLA 3D printer” Gigaom, June 10, 2014,

7 Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “ORNL, CINCINNATI partner to develop commercial large-scale additive manufacturing system,” news release, February 17, 2014,

8 Stratasys, Objet500 Connex3, How to Maximize Multi-Material and Color Possibilities, 2013.

9 Michael Molitch-Hou, “Metal-Plastic Voxel 3D Printing Pursued by Arizona State University,” 3D Printing Industry, April 2, 2014,

10 “Print me a phone,” The Economist (US), July 28, 2012,

11 Mike Orcutt, “Printing Batteries,” MIT Technology Review, November 25, 2013,

12 The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, “An essential step toward printing living tissues,” news release, February 19, 2014,

13 “Revolutionary ‘Smart Wing’ Created for UAV Model Demonstrates Groundbreaking Technology,” Optomec, 2006,

14 Cabe Atwell, “iRobot Takes Humans out of 3-D Printing Equation,” Design News, March 13, 2013.