Five or more leading players in 3D Printing

Recently a friend asked me to name the five companies I considered most important to the development of 3D printing. It’s a good question and has stayed with me, despite the beer and schnapps that we were drinking at the time.

3D printing has been used to produce prototypes and even parts for motorbikes.

Stratasys. There’s no question that Stratasys is absolutely at the forefront of additive manufacturing, having started as one of the pioneers. Most of its printers use fused deposition modelling or FDM, but earlier this year it announced its first foray into stereolithography with the V650, and it’s also working on metal printing, and has spun off a number of subsidiaries to explore other technologies, such as Evolve Additive Solutions, which is developing a selective toner electrophotographic process or STEP. It has developed a number of important materials, most notably Ultem 9085 and has a contract manufacturing venture that’s helping other manufacturers explore additive as a manufacturing process. Moreover, Stratasys also has joint ventures with many other players, ranging from Siemens to Xaar, so it’s fingerprints are all over the 3D printing industry.

Materialise. This German company is one of the most interesting of all the 3D printing vendors. Materialise has developed quite a range of software for various stages of design and production, including simulations, for both metal and plastic parts. Not surprisingly, Materialise has become the go-to software partner for most of the printer vendors. It’s particularly active in the healthcare field, having become the first company worldwide to secure FDA approval for software intended for 3D printing of anatomical models for diagnostic use. At the same time, the company also operates a contract 3D printing facility at Bremen that also includes metal part production. 

Koen Neutjens, Product manager for e-stage for Materialise Software.

BASF. Everybody working in additive manufacturing knows that material development is absolutely key to the success of any given 3D printing approach. There are lots of different suppliers developing such materials, ranging from plastic filaments to complex polymers and metal powders. This includes most of the larger chemical companies but BASF has been particularly successful, striking partnerships with most of the major developers, including HP and Xaar.

Siemens. Few companies have really grasped the opportunities inherent in additive manufacturing to the extent that Siemens has. Siemens’ NX software platform is widely used throughout the additive manufacturing world and that alone would qualify this company as a serious player in terms of developing 3D printing technology. But the real significance of Siemens is that the company is also a major user of additive manufacturing, particularly in its Power and Gas division, and has 3D-printed many components for its turbines and other equipment. Moreover Siemens has really taken advantage of additive techniques to optimise the design of these parts so that some simply couldn’t be produced through conventional manufacturing approaches. In addition, Siemens has also acquired the British company, Materials Solutions, opening a new facility in Worcester at the end of last year.

The factory floor – Material Solutions additive manufacturing facility in Worcester, UK

GE Additive. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that a company involved in the breadth of manufacturing that General Electric is, should have turned to additive to solve some of its manufacturing issues. But the company has gone further, buying several specialist companies to ensure that it can meet all of its needs without being subject to the whim of other suppliers. This includes GeonX, Concept Laser and the Swedish company Arcam, which pioneered an electron beam technique for metal 3D printing. The Arcam acquisition came with a useful subsidiary, AP&C, which makes metal powders for metal 3D printing.

I’m going to add to this list five more companies that I think are worth keeping an eye on.

HP. To be honest, a thermal printhead is not the most obvious starting point for any kind of industrial 3D printing and yet HP has developed a number of highly capable 3D printers in a relatively short space of time. And, as those of us who cover the 2D printing world have seen, HP is a formidable competitor that’s not afraid to throw its weight around. To this end, HP is not just developing 3D printers but all the eco-system necessary to support this including materials and workflow software. The company has branched out into metal printing and has an ambitious roadmap firmly aimed at pushing its technology into the wider manufacturing community for serial production use. 

XJet. This is one of the few companies that has developed an approach to additive manufacturing that really is a form of 3D printing. It’s Nano Particle Jetting system is basically a material jetting approach that uses inkjet printheads to print a carrier fluid that contains the build material. When the fluid evaporates it leaves behind the material that can be built up layer by layer to form a part. This is more or less done in the same way that when the carrier fluid from an inkjet ink is removed, it leaves behind the pigment that forms a graphic. 

3D printed samples at Xaar.

Xaar. Most printhead manufacturers are quietly supplying heads to 3D printer vendors, but few have really invested in additive to the degree that Xaar has. The company has been tinkering with 3D printing since 2014 and has worked on a high speed sintering approach based around its own heads, acquiring the Danish developer BluePrinter to help with this. Xaar has now entered into a joint venture with Stratasys, Xaar 3D ltd, to develop this further and to commercialise it.

Additive Industries. This Dutch company has developed a metal printer, the MetalFab1, aimed purely at serial part production. It’s had considerable success with several customers having bought two or even three of these machines to produce parts ranging from automotive use through to food processors. However, it is a large and expensive machine so the company has developed a compact entry-level version, also aimed at serial production. Additive Industies is not a particularly large company, but it is extremely focused and is reaping the rewards, having expanded into new facilities just a year ago.

Markforged. It’s true that MarkForged is not one of the big 3D printer vendors, and doesn’t even make particularly big printers, but nonetheless I think that this is a company worth keeping an eye on. The key to its approach lies in the composite materials that its developed for its printers, and which allow it to produce parts that have an excellent balance of strength, light weight and relatively low cost. The printers also use the well-tried fused deposition modelling approach, including its metal printer. 

It struck me also that three of these companies come from the graphics printing market and more specifically, inkjet. HP is active in just about every type of commercial printing from wide format display graphics to books and even clothing and decor; Xaar is a leading supplier of printheads to both the graphics and industrial printing markets; and the people behind XJet all have long involvement in commercial printing, mainly through the legendary Israeli company Scitex. The significance here is that inkjet is a scalable technology.

Ramon Pastor, HP’s vice president and general manager of 3D printing, at the Formnext 3D printing show.

At this stage, there’s no question regarding the capability of 3D printing since the technology has been widely used to produce everything from false teeth and jewellery to aircraft and satellite components. Instead the main question is how easily we can scale the technology up to truly industrial manufacturing. There’s not really a cost-effective way to do this with any of the laser-based techniques but it’s relatively straightforward with inkjet. Of course, inkjet brings its own challenges, but those vendors that have developed high speed single pass printers are well-places to overcome those challenges, having already dealt with problems like stitching, automated cleaning and heavily-loaded fluids such as white ink.

In truth, there are lots more companies involved in developing additive manufacturing and no doubt people will point out others that I could have named. You could certainly argue that 3D Systems, EOS and Renishaw have produced some fantastic 3D printers and really advanced the technology to the point where it is being used in manufacturing. Lists such as this usually tell us more about the priorities of the person making the list than about the industry in general, but nonetheless it’s an interesting exercise and I encourage anyone reading this to make their own lists, if only to better understand where your own priorities lie.


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