Is America falling behind in Additive Manufacturing technology?

Living in America you can’t help but feel that we’re right smack in the center of the new Additive Manufacturing revolution. The top publicly traded companies, Stratasys and 3D Systems, are headquartered here. The Big Apple is a 3D printing mecca with companies like Makerbot and Shapeways based there. President Obama not only mentioned 3D printing in his latest State of the Union Address, but is also seeking to build 15 AM-based, Innovation Centers across the country. And hobby-level 3D printers are showing up in every American city.

America is dominating the 3D printing revolution, right? Well, not so fast, says a recent report by industry analyst Terry Wolhers. He warns that America’s dominance in additive manufacturing could be flagging.

Engineering.com reports that in anticipation of the annual Wohlers Report, the firm as released some data from the upcoming report that seems to show that the U.S. could be being passed up by the rest of the world when it comes to making professional grade 3D printers.

Of the 25 commercial/industrial printer manufacturers today, only five are headquartered in the U.S. Two are in Japan, five in China, and seven in Europe. Contrast that with the numbers from 10 years ago when 10 of twenty manufacturers were U.S.-based.

Of particular concern to Wohlers is America’s competitive disadvantage when it comes to printing in metal: “What’s more, all of the metal powder bed fusion systems are manufactured outside the U.S. Seven manufacturers of these systems are in Europe and two are in China. Together, China, Singapore, many countries in Europe, and even South Africa, have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in AM development and commercialization over the next few years.”

I’m not sure that the number of companies in each country serves as a great indicator of where the U.S. is competitively, as American companies Stratasys and 3D Systems are the largest 3D printing companies in the world, which multiple and diverse product and service divisions, serving countries all over the world.

But the point on printing metal is well-taken. Plastics and other non-metal materials have served the current uses of 3D printing well, and that is mainly prototyping. But the move to manufacturing industrial end-user parts will require the printing of metal materials.

Additive manufacturing is supposed to ignite an American manufacturing comeback, where we make our goods at home rather than import them from China and other countries. Let’s make sure that the AM technology we use in this resurgence is also Made in America.

  • Points well taken re: metal fusion. It will be interesting to see how ExOne, the US metal AM company, plays a growing role in this field. Their metal systems are based on the original 3D printing (3DP) technology (jetting a binder onto a powder bed, then sintering the part) as licensed from MIT in the 90s, when the company was in the same consortium as former Z Corp.