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Popularity of FDM

January 17, 2016

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 08:29

Since the early 2000s, fused deposition modeling (FDM)—more formally referred to as material extrusion by ASTM and ISO—has been the most popular additive manufacturing and 3D printing process worldwide. In 2003, Stratasys sold nearly as many FDM machines as all other AM machines combined, according to our research for Wohlers Report 2004. In 2006, Stratasys was responsible for 54.7% (1,723) of all AM systems sold.

2007 was a turning point for FDM technology, although few people knew it at the time. This was when the RepRap project, an open-source effort on FDM technology, began to gain traction. It coincided with the expiration of key FDM foundation patents held by Stratasys. We believe that 66 low-cost (under $5,000) FDM clones were sold in 2007, but the number of these products grew to an estimated 139,584 by 2014, based on our research for Wohlers Report 2015. To give some appreciation for this growth, 12,850 industrial AM machines, priced at more than $5,000, were sold in 2014.

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Two people are responsible for the popularity of FDM technology. First is Scott Crump, the inventor of FDM and co-founder of Stratasys. His pioneering work in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the commercialization of the technology. Without his efforts, the industry might look quite different than it does today. Second is Adrian Bowyer, the person that started the RepRap project. No one knew at the time that it would serve as the foundation for hundreds of start-up companies that would produce and sell FDM clones around the world.

Earlier this month, it was announced that RepRapPro, a company that Bowyer founded, was shutting down. In some ways, Bowyer was a victim of his own success. Over the recent past, we have told others that we believe 300+ companies are producing and selling FDM clones worldwide. A knowledgeable and well-connected person I spoke with in Shanghai last month said that as many as 1,000 FDM clone manufacturers may be in operation, in China alone. If he is even half right, our 300+ estimate is quite low.

A lot has happened in the world of FDM since the first machines were sold by Stratasys in 1991. Few envisioned the impact of the expiring patents and the open-source RepRap project. The future is also unclear, especially with so many companies trying to build businesses around FDM. I recall hearing someone say that it’s a race to the bottom. I’m sure that even Crump is amazed by what has happened to FDM over the past 25 years, especially over the past decade.