How Has the COVID Pandemic Affected the Market for 3D Printers?

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As the world continues to deal with the effects of the COVID pandemic, we’re now at a better place to take a look back and see exactly how this event has changed so many things. Aside from the health effects of the pandemic, the economic consequences cannot be overlooked. In this article, we are focusing on the market for 3D printers.

Has the pandemic affected the total sales of 3D printers from 2020 to 2021? Has the effect on the industry been positive or negative?

3D printing market trends before COVID


Before COVID, 3D printing and additive manufacturing were enjoying healthy and sustaining growth trends. At the end of 2019, the global additive manufacturing market crossed the double-digit billion threshold with market size of about $10.4 billion. This represented a steady growth from only $3 billion in 2013 and $7.3 billion in 2018.

There were many signs that indicated that the market was poised for more growth. Industry adopters of 3D printing technology continued to increase, with healthcare, automotive, and industrial goods considered the most mature. The dental industry was also expected to become a major growth driver for 3D printing moving forward with an estimated value of $3.7 billion by 2021.

The year 2019 also saw the transition of 3D printing being used for full-on production instead of just prototyping. From 2018 to 2019, the number of companies using 3D printing for production doubled. In a separate survey, 79% of respondents believed that their companies could adopt manufacturing via 3D printing within the next 3 to 5 years.

The US remained the country with the largest number of installed 3D printers with 422,000 units. They were joined in the top five by the UK, Germany, China, and France. There were about 722,000 3D printers installed in entire Europe and about 168,000 3D printers in the entire Asian region.

Polymer 3D printing remained the biggest market segment in 2019. However, the metal 3D printing segment was going through rapid growth, particularly the market for Binder Jetting technology. According to a research firm, the number of shipments of metal 3D printers is expected to increase over 49% year-to-year.

This healthy outlook on the additive manufacturing segment is also reflected in the number of investments flowing into the segment. In 2019, more than $300 million of funding was funneled to 3D printing startups by venture capitalists.

Based on growth trends, market experts expected the 3D printing industry to have an annual growth between 18.2% and 27.2% in the next five years. This will translate to a doubling of market size for every three years.

Market growth despite the pandemic

The 3D printing industry was one of the few industries that experienced growth despite the economic downturn caused by the COVID pandemic. By the end of 2020, the 3D printing market grew to an estimated value of $12.6 billion. This 21% growth is well within the market predictions.

What made 3D printing so resilient in 2020? As the effects of the COVID pandemic spread worldwide, the lack of mobility compromised supply chains for various industries. This showed the vulnerabilities of a traditional supply chain that relied heavily on the physical transport of goods. 3D printing had no such vulnerability.

With companies unable to ship parts overseas, many turned to 3D printing not just for prototyping but also to produce finished parts. According to a survey, 65% of engineering businesses attested to using 3D printing to a greater degree in 2020. Of the companies that used 3D printing in 2020, 29% used them for end-use parts while 47% used them for prototyping.

The transportation, automotive, and biotechnology industries reported the highest numbers of increases in the use of 3D printing for end-use parts. As pointed out in the research, the transportation sector benefits from the ability of 3D printing to manufacture parts that are otherwise already out of production. Biotechnology applications are facilitated by the design freedom and complexity that 3D printing offers.

The year 2020 emphasized again the potential of 3D printing for producing end-use parts instead of just prototypes. According to a survey of engineering businesses, 73% of respondents predicted that they will produce more 3D printed parts in 2021.

More widespread 3D printing use for healthcare


2020 has proven to be a landmark year for the 3D printing industry. In a year where the healthcare industry came under intense pressure, 3D printing gained mainstream popularity as many 3D printers around the world were put to work creating personalized PPE parts and components for medical equipment. This has been another example of 3D printers filling in the gap of a disrupted supply chain.

One of the more high-profile uses of 3D printing in 2020 came about because of a shortage of ventilator valves for intensive care devices in Brescia, Italy. A company called Issinnova responded to the call by bringing a 3D printer to the hospital and producing the needed Venturi valves on-site.

From mask fitters, filter holders for respirators, and emergency quarantine dwellings, 3D printers were put to work in various areas of the world. There is no doubt that 3D printing has never gained as much publicity as before the pandemic. This has further highlighted the remarkable agility and responsiveness that 3D printing can offer, even amid a global medical emergency.

Factors for future growth

The resilience that 3D printing has shown amidst the pandemic has made many industry experts even more optimistic about its potential growth. Over the next five years, the market value of the industry is expected to almost triple in size. By 2026, the 3D printing market is expected to have an estimated value of $37.2 billion and should sustain about 17% year-to-year growth.

The healthcare segment has become one of the fastest-growing markets for 3D printing and is expected to have a value of $4.3 billion by 2025 from only $1.9 billion in 2020. Prototyping remains a valuable application for 3D printing and will remain essential as the use of the technology for end-use production increases.

There are still several hurdles that prevent the more widespread adoption of 3D printing. Factors such as limited expertise, high costs per part, and limited material options have been cited by some businesses. Fortunately, up-and-coming innovations in 3D printing seem geared towards addressing these limitations.

The integration of robotics is being explored by many companies and research groups as a way to scale up the capabilities of 3D printing. We have already seen examples of this in a 3D metal printing method called wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM). Through the use of robotic arms, projects no longer need to be constrained within the rigid frames of 3D printers.

3D printing with metal remains an attractive field for further development, as is 3D printing with composite materials. This “material freedom” should help the adoption of 3D printing, especially for end-use parts. There are several big initiatives in this field including several companies investing in binder jetting technology while the competition in the polymer powder bed fusion market remains very active.

Increasing competition in the 3D printing market is expected to lower the cost of both the services and the hardware. This will serve to further increase the customer case of 3D printers, whether it’s companies or individual users.

The 3D printing industry is not immune from the effects of the COVID pandemic. Although 3D printers do not rely as heavily on traditional supply chains, the industries served by 3D printing still do to some degree. Many of these industries continue to suffer poor performance due to the pandemic. Until the industries fully recover, it would be difficult to expect 3D printing to truly fulfill its potential.

Final thoughts

There is doubt that the past year will go down in history as one of the most difficult because of the COVID pandemic. Aside from the collective toll on people’s health, many businesses and industries also suffered. The pandemic has forced us to look at just about everything with a new perspective and adopt a “new normal,” so to speak.

As one of the few industries to have thrived during the pandemic, 3D printing seems poised to take over as the new normal of manufacturing. Not having to rely on physical supply chains has showcased just how flexible 3D printing technology can be. Now that 3D printing has gained the attention of the world, we are optimistic that more investment and research will be focused on this flourishing technology.

Warning; 3D printers should never be left unattended. They can pose a firesafety hazard.