Shipments of 3D printers will double over the next year, reaching 217,350 units in 2015, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to a study released today by Gartner.
That rate of growth is expected to continue each year over the next three years. By 2018, Gartner forecast shipments worldwide to top more than 2.4 million units.
The report points to the popularity of lower-cost, "plug-and-print" machines that require little or no technological knowledge to use. Users simply plug the machines into their desktops or laptops, upload 3D CAD images and hit "print."
"As we noted last year, the 3D printer market is at an inflection point," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner. "Unit shipment growth rates for 3D printers, which languished in the low single and double digits per year throughout the 30 years since the first 3D printers were invented, are poised to increase dramatically beginning in 2015."
As radical as the forecast numbers may seem, Basiliere noted that even the 2.4 million shipments Gartner expects to be sold in 2018 is still "a small fraction of the total potential market of consumers, businesses and government organizations worldwide."
Gartner includes seven technologies in the 3D printer market that will propel growth, including the material extrusion products used to print objects. Two main thermoplastics dominate: PLA (Polylactic acid) and ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene).
The primary drivers for consumer-grade 3D printers include lower prices (below $1,000), improved performance and expanded global availability. The primary drivers for the enterprise 3D printer market are the viability of the technologies for rapid product prototyping and manufacturing coupled with lower 3D printer costs, improved quality and a wider range of materials, Gartner said.
"The high material extrusion shipment growth numbers are basically driving the 3D printer forecast," said Mr. Basiliere. "New providers are entering the market, sometimes directly, sometimes through crowdfunding campaigns, on what seems like a daily basis. These providers are leveraging the expiration of early extrusion technology patents to make low-cost, low-priced devices targeted mainly at consumers."
Gartner predicts that end-user spending on material extrusion technology will increase from $789 million in 2015 to around $6.9 billion in 2018. Overall, spending on 3D printers is expected to increase from $1.6 billion in 2015 to around $13.4 billion in 2018 with technologies such as vat photopolymerization and material jetting leading the growth due as the technology becomes more commonplace for enterprise users and consumers.
Average selling prices (ASPs) also vary with technology and market forces. Each market has different dynamics, including the mix of devices, prices and buyer requirements that drive the average for all 3D printers in a given technology.
"Manufacturers will strive to add features and improve performance in the first few years rather than reduce the prices of printers," said Mr. Basiliere. "Therefore, the ASPs of a few technologies are expected to increase or to gradually decrease in the outer years after an increase in 2014 or 2015.