Survey the Additive Manufacturing Landscape – Watch the Fine Print Though…


Lee-Bath Nelson  

coming soon 3d printed infographic 3-2

Surveys allow us to get a feel of the market sentiment and so are always interesting. The only thing is: we need to keep in mind what the audience is that takes the survey when we look at the results. In the last week or so 2 surveys were published by Sculpteo and 3Dhubs (a part of ImpactLabs) and it prompted me to look at what we can learn from these surveys and the one published earlier this year by Essentium. Perhaps we should start with the big picture: where are we in the classic Gartner hype cycle. While Gartner stopped publishing its very detailed 3D printing hype cycle, has done a Manufacturing Operations Strategy 2020 hype cycle for Xerox (see below) which includes 3D Printing in Manufacturing Operations (which in August 2020 was in the Trough of Disillusionment relatively close to the Slope of Enlightenment). Interestingly, this hype cycle also includes Digital Supply Chain strategy which already in August 2020 was in the Slope of Enlightenment – I can only imagine what 7 more months of COVID19 have done to that. So, are the people surveyed in 2021 (or late 2020) disillusioned with 3D printing?


Surveys: Caveat Emptor

When it comes to surveys, first and foremost, they only represent the opinion of the audience surveyed and therefore it is very important to note the characteristics of the survey takers. There is a large difference in the amount of info and insight each survey provides into its subject pool. 3Dhubs just mentions they surveyed 1,504 people from engineering businesses without breaking it down at all beyond that, not even to size of operation or geographic dispersion. Elsewhere in the survey we see that only 2% or respondents have 3D printing runs of over 1,000 parts suggesting that these are mostly prototype and short run production organizations. Essentium gives slightly more info on its much smaller pool of 169 individuals (take aways: the vast majority are from North American (~70%), many from companies with less than 5000 employees (53%)).  While the number of surveyed people here is relatively small, all of them come from companies with at least 1,000 employees which means that this survey is relevant to the mid market sized companies and possibly for somewhat larger companies as well. On the other hand, Sculpteo commendably give a wealth of info about their pool of more than 1900 respondents: only half use 3D printing for work and less than 25% of the people surveyed work at companies that have $10mm annual revenues or more. This report clearly reflects well the small business and hobbyist part of the market and is therefore interesting and complementary to the other two. Furthermore, Sculpteo carves out a group called Power Users which are those using 3D printing in a work context and with significant investment and experience using the technology – 38% of all respondents said that 3D printing is the main activity of their company (3D printer manufacturers, service providers, and other vendors in the ecosystem) so it is likely that the power users are from those companies. While they do not give any statistics on this group, they do note their findings separately in some subjects – I tend to think that these users are mostly indicative of the sentiment within our ecosystem. Now that we have some context, let’s look at the findings.

Are Users Disillusioned?

This was obviously not asked directly in any survey but Sculpteo did ask about the impact COVID had on the 3D printing business strategy and 30% have partially or completely stopped 3D printing operations while 30% slightly or significantly increased 3D printing operations (40% unchanged). That suggests no worsening on average on the lower end of the market. In the Essentium survey 57% said their production part 3D printing activity increased while less than 30% said it decreased. This result may be a bit skewed since Essentium and its customers have been very active in the production of nasal swabs for COVID tests, still there is a big difference here. In the 3Dhubs (engineering businesses) survey, 33% said 3D printing usage increased while only 17% said it decreased. Looking forward the majority of respondents (~60%) in the Sculpteo survey intend to invest more in 3D printing in 2021 and 92% of the Essentium respondents expect their use of additive manufacturing (AM) will increase over the next 3-5 years with 51% saying it will increase dramatically. To me this does not sound like disillusionment but I’ve drunk the AM Kool-Aid :-)

Essentium survey - size of production run 2018-2020e

Longer Runs?

The Essentium survey concentrates on production parts that are especially important for our ecosystem. They find that over 50% of respondents have more than quintupled (5X) their production parts in the last year. Again, the small sample size, as well as COVID and Essentium’s active role in the response to it, might be factors but this is nice to see. They also asked: “how big is the largest production run your company has ever run?” and compared results to the previous 2 years’ surveys (see above). It’s clear to see the pull towards larger runs but interestingly the % that did up to hundreds in a run had not decreased much from 2019 to 2020 (from 52% to 49%) – it seems that most of the movement is within each half of the scale and in both halves it is towards larger runs. It is especially impressive to see 14% in the 100k or more run size category (but, again, this is skewed by swabs).


All surveys ask about concerns and beyond the usual suspects (cost reduction, skills/expertise, and material availability) Essentium found about 7 categories that were noted by about 20% of respondents including vendor lock-in and the lack of a business case for adoption. In the Sculpteo survey approximately 20% cited physical space needed as a concern but upon reflection this makes sense for the smaller end of the market. In the 3Dhubs survey 29% of respondents said the main concern is that the quality of parts is not high enough. Looking to the future, 44% of Essentium’s respondents said the most important strategic consideration for the adoption of 3D printing is ensuring that it will integrate with existing machinery and work in practice on the factory floor (I’m a fan!), and 26% said it is mitigating supply chain risks with local production (also a fan!).

Surveys are great for crystalizing insights from the input the market gives us. Still, its impact depends mostly on what we, the ecosystem players, do with it – it is up to us to listen carefully and do our part to continue to move this ecosystem in the right direction.

For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Top pic is 3D printed chart from coming soon for Ablynx.

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