The number of 3D printers being sold is set to double by 2015 despite hype outpacing technical realities, according to IT analyst house Gartner.
The firm predicts that worldwide shipments of 3D printers costing less than $US100,000 (£61,800) will grow 49 per cent in 2013, bringing the total number to 56,507 units.
"The 3D printer market has reached its inflection point," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner in a statement today. "While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results."
In 2013, Gartner predicts combined end-user spending on 3D printers will climb to $US412 million (£255 million), up 43 per cent from spending of $US288 million (£178 million) in 2012. More than three quarters of spending, $US325 million (£200 million) will come from the enterprise market, while the consumer segment will reach nearly $US87 million (£53 million).
Gartner anticipates that enterprise and consumer demand for 3D printers will increase further as innovations boost the quality and performance of devices. It said that shipments will grow 75 per cent in 2014 to 98,065 units, followed by a near doubling of unit shipments in 2015.
In 2014, Gartner believes 3D printer spending will increase 62 per cent to $US669 million (£412 million), with enterprise spending accounting for $US536 million (£330 million) and consumer spending for $US133 million (£82 million).
"As the products rapidly mature, organisations will increasingly exploit 3D printing's potential in their laboratory, product development and manufacturing operations," added Basiliere. "In the next 18 months, we foresee consumers moving from being curious about the technology to finding reasons to justify purchases as price points, applications and functionality become more attractive."
Current uses of 3D technology focus on one-off or small-run models for product design and industrial prototyping, jigs and fixtures used in manufacturing processes and mass customisation of finished goods, according to Gartner. However, the research firm believes the use cases of 3D printers are set to expand to areas such as architecture, defence, medical products and jewellery design as advances in 3D printers, scanners, design tools and materials reduce the cost and complexity of creating 3D printed items.
Gartner also predicts that 3D printing will have a high impact on industries, including consumer products, industrial and manufacturing. Indeed, Nasa has already used 3D printing to create a component for its rocket engines and the American space agency also has plans to launch a 3D printer to into space next year so that astronauts can make things on the fly.
The positive news for the 3D printing market comes after scientists warned that the manufacturing technique could be dangerous if carried out in poorly ventilated environments.
Back in July, Techworld reported that the first 3D printer had hit the high street when electronics retailer Maplin added the Velleman K8200 to its stores. Looking ahead, Gartner expects that by 2015, seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3D printers through their physical and online stores.
"Simply experiencing the technology and conceiving ways to use it will mainly drive makers and hobbyists, not the average consumer, to purchase a 3D printer to begin with," said Basiliere. "However, we expect that a compelling consumer application something that can only be created at home on a 3D printer will hit the scene by 2016."