Is Apple planning a 3D printer?

As corporate giants such as GE and Boeing adopt 3D printing, industry analyst Terry Wohlers predicted that one more company is likely to join the pack with its own machine: Apple.

LONG BEACH, CALIF. -- Speaking here today about the tremendous growth of the 3D printing industry, analyst Terry Wohlers slipped one name into a list of potential machine makers that took some by surprise: Apple.

Wohlers was presenting at the RAPID 3D Printing Conference and Expo. His firm, Wohlers Associates, released its 2015 report, its twentieth annual, last month.

"I'm not suggesting Apple has a product, but will they get into this business? Maybe," Wohlers said. "I mean, Autodesk has gotten into it. Microsoft, Adobe -- the list goes on. So the major IT and technology companies have gotten into this and we think maybe Apple will too.

"I think the iPrint would be a good name," Wohlers continued. "You heard it here first."

Another tech giant, Hewlett-Packard, announced last year it will be releasing a 3D printer. HP's Multi Jet Fusion machine will be able to manufacture production parts for companies, and not just make the more common one-off prototypes, HP claims.

The market overall is growing. The additive manufacturing industry has quadrupled in sales over the past five years, reaching $4.1 billion last year, of which $2 billion came from machine and material sales, Wohlers said. The rest was from software and services.

In 2014, 139,584 desktop 3D printers -- defined as costing less than $5,000 -- were shipped, dwarfing the number of industrial printers, which saw 12,580 units shipped in 2014.

Of course, when it came to revenue, the reverse was true. Industrial 3D printers, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, reached $1.12 billion in revenue last year; desktop 3D printers garnered $173.3 million, according to Wohlers' report.

Mainstream industries, such as aerospace and biomedical, are increasing their use of 3D printing to reduce costs by just-in-time manufacturing and being able to print lighter parts that can be redesigned on the fly.

For example, Airbus has produced from 45,000 to 60,000 3D-printed parts for its aircraft and increased its additive manufacturing staff to 35 full time employees in 2014, up from 20 in 2013.

"It's proven technology and it hasn't had problems," Wohlers said. "They're all in like GE and Boeing are. We think over 100,000 additive manufactured parts are flying on Boeing aircraft today."

Also becoming increasingly popular are hybrid machines, which combine CNC tooling, or subtractive manufacturing techniques, with additive manufacturing components. The machines will first 3D-print a layer of material, either plastics or metal, and a milling tool will further refine it while the print job continues.

"We're seeing a lot of companies just in recent years... announce plans or have some level of development going on," Wohlers said. "It's an interesting time in this business."

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