Will it disrupt traditional manufacturing?

Executive Summary

The rapid spread of 3D printing technology promises to hold significant gains for businesses, its advocates say. The printers are enabling entrepreneurs to drastically reduce their costs for producing prototypes. They also enable small businesses to manufacture limited quantities of products, customize offerings for individual clients and introduce new products in a cost-efficient way. And the adaptation of 3D printers for materials other than plastic has opened the door to printing products ranging from human tissue to food to small buildings. But for all the promise of 3D printing, experts warn of potential downsides, including disruption of trade patterns, loss of jobs, questions about quality and the danger of unscrupulous operators counterfeiting trademarked products.

Key takeaways include:

  • The market for 3D printers has grown by 80 percent since 2016 and could quadruple over the next decade as prices fall and operational speed rises.

  • The number of U.S. companies that use 3D printers is still a minority, although a growing one.

  • The United States and Germany are the global leaders in the 3D printing industry.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Please login or find out how to gain access.

Resources for Further Study



Chua, Chee Kai, and Kah Fai Leong, “3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing: Principles and Applications,” World Scientific Publishing Co., 2017. Two Singaporean researchers compare the advantages and shortcomings of additive manufacturing technologies that use various materials.

Gibson, Ian, David Rosen and Brent Stucker, “Additive Manufacturing Technologies: 3D Printing, Rapid Prototyping, and Direct Digital Manufacturing,” Springer, 2015. Three university researchers discuss the fundamentals of and concepts behind rapid prototyping and layered manufacturing.


“Interactions Releases ‘What Shoppers Want from Retail Technology’ Survey,” Interactions Marketing, May 18, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8w3pndj. In a survey by retail marketing consultant Interactions, 95 percent of consumers said they were “looking forward” to buying 3D-printed products and 80 percent said they would spend more at a store that could create unique products using 3D printing.

“Less than 10% of jobs threatened by 3D printing & automation, says French employment council,” 3ders.org, Jan. 18, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y79r4tpm. Despite economists’ warnings that 3D printing could threaten jobs, a report from France’s Employment Policy Council, a governmental advisory body, said this claim could be exaggerated. Still, the authors said, more than half of existing jobs could be significantly changed by emerging technologies.

Gasparro, Annie, and Jesse Newman, “Six Technologies That Could Shake the Food World,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycd2rraw. Two technology reporters explore the use of 3D printing to “print” meals, including chicken nuggets and faux shrimp.

Pultarova, Tereza, “The Strangest Things That Were 3D-Printed in 2017,” LiveScience, Dec. 18, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb9vvlg4. From mouse ovaries to food made from cheese to prosthetic eyes that, while nonfunctional, can make children born without eyes look normal, a journalist explores some of the most unusual items made last year with 3D printers.

Reports and Studies

“3D Printing: A Manufacturing Revolution,” A.T. Kearney, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/yakyj9s4. A global management consulting firm describes 3D printing as a “breakthrough value in product design and production.” Its report touts the technology as having “distinct benefits that traditional manufacturing cannot deliver.”

“Wohlers Report 2018: 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing State of the Industry,” Wohlers Associates, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yb3u4cm9. The consulting firm’s 23rd annual report is a worldwide review and analysis of additive manufacturing and 3D printing, based on information from 92 service providers, 64 manufacturers and 19 producers of 3D printers and printing materials.

Gupta, B.M., and S.M. Dhawan, “Three Dimensional (3D) Printing: A Scientometric Assessment of Global Publications Output during 2007-16,” Journal of Library & Information Technology, July 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7h5dnqw. Two researchers from the India-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research compiled studies of 3D printing from 2007 to 2016 to show the volume of scientific research on the technology by topic and geographic origin.

Leering, Raoul, “3D printing: a threat to global trade,” ING, September 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8mypys6. A report from Dutch bank ING concluded that high-speed 3D printers will make mass production with the machines economically viable, but will lead to less trade growth as the technology reduces the need for labor and imports of goods from low-wage countries.

The Next Step


Cecchini, Chiara, “Edible Carving: How 3D printers Could Create Your Next Meal,” The Spoon, Sept. 30, 2018, http://tinyurl.com/yc8wwpzc. The 3D food printing industry could prove revolutionary for individuals, such as pregnant women and the elderly, who have special dietary needs and require customized meals, says a food and science technology scholar.

Morris, Ali, “Elzelinde van Doleweerd creates 3D-printed snacks from food waste,” Dezeen, Oct. 3, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yb63wr93. Through a 3D-printing, bacteria-eliminating dehydration process, a Dutch scientist has created edible food from old food waste.

Saunders, Sarah, “Canadian Startup is Turning Food Waste into Biodegradable, Plastic 3D Printing Filament,” 3Dprint.com, Sept. Oct. 4, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7wwnq6t. A Toronto-based startup has discovered a way to turn food scraps into biodegradable plastic material at 40 percent less cost than other commercial processes.

Human Tissue

Boissonneault, Tess, “After crash destroys first bioprinter bound for space, Russian company announces duplicate model,” 3D Printing Media Network, Oct. 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8mpce9y. A Russian 3D printing company is providing the International Space Station with its first 3D bioprinter, which will print human tissue and eventually organs in space.

Rogers, Shelby, “Doctors Can Finally 3D Print Human Tissue, Ligaments and Tendons,” Interesting Engineering, Oct. 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yc8qvep7. University of Utah biomedical engineers have figured out how to 3D-print new ligaments and tendons by layering stem cells from a patient onto hydrogel, facilitating new cell growth.

Vialva, Tia, “Toronto scientists develop handheld 3D bioprinter to treat burn victims,” 3D Printing Industry, Sept. 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y85zgopr. University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Research Institute scientists have created a 3D printer capable of treating burn victims remotely, without having to use scarce human donor tissue.


A website that offers articles, price comparisons, statistics, basic printing information and user forums for individuals and businesses offering and using 3D printing.

The 3D Printing Association
c/o Lejeune Association Management, Postbox 85612 NL-2508 CH, The Hague
A small trade association for companies in the additive manufacturing business that aims to advance the technology throughout Europe.

Additive Manufacturing Consortium
1250 Arthur E. Adams Drive, Columbus, OH 43221
An arm of manufacturer EWI, the eight-year-old consortium defines its mission as accelerating and advancing the manufacturing readiness of metal addictive manufacturing technology. The national consortium includes industry, government, academic and nonprofit research organizations.

Association of 3D Printing
Billing itself as “the voice of the 3D printing industry,” the association is a conglomeration of marketing, Web, public relations, general management and finance executives that works with manufacturers, printing companies, designers, governments and researchers involved in 3D printing.

Canada Makes
A network of private, public, academic and nonprofit organizations, this association promotes the adoption of additive manufacturing in Canada.

The Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence
1314 Kinnear Road, Columbus, OH 43212
Based at Ohio State University, this research center supports university and commercial research on technology and aims to close the gap between industry needs and academic research efforts.

Council of Scientific and Industrial Research
Anusandhan Bhawan, 2 Rafi Marg, New Delhi-110001, India
One of the largest publicly funded research and development organizations in the world, the council was established by India’s government in 1942 to promote scientific knowledge and boost industrialization and economic growth.

Fraunhofer Additive Manufacturing Alliance
c/o Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology, Reichenhainer Straße 88 09126 Chemnitz, Germany
+49 351 4772-2136
The organization bills itself as “an interdisciplinary European alliance of competence” and develops new technologies and processes to enhance business performance.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680432.n1