The booming business of 3-D printing

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Think 3-D printing is limited to prototypes and futuristic dreams? Guess again. Additive manufacturing already can be found in everything from Invisalign teeth aligners to jet engine parts. A primer on the multi-billion-dollar industry.

Three-dimensional printing's origins can be traced to Japanese researchers, who printed the world's first 3-D objects three decades ago. That technology today has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry that's just getting started.

The global market reached $2.2bn last year-up 28.6% from 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, an additive manufacturing research firm. Much of the industry is devoted to creating prototypes. But experts say most of the growth moving forward will be in manufacturing parts and finished products for consumers.

'That's where the money is,' said Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates. 'That's where the excitement is.That's where the opportunities are.'

Here's what could be next for 3-D printing.

(Read more: 10 ways 3-D printing will blow your mind )

1. How is additive manufacturing likely to grow?

Industry growth is likely to come from organic sales and output, and acquisitions. For example, industry leader Stratasys acquired Brooklyn, N.Y.-based start-up MakerBot in a $403m deal in June.

Additionally, about 20% of Stratasys's growth is organic, said Andrea James, senior research analyst at Dougherty & Co. Much of that organic growth stems from expanding the applications for its systems, and diversifying its 3-D printing materials.

'As materials' properties improve and processes become more robust, 3-D printing could become increasingly appealing for end-parts production,' according to an Aug. 7 Goldman Sachs note on disruptive technologies, including additive manufacturing.

And throughout the industry, entrepreneurs will be able to use existing technology to bring new systems to market, according to Wohlers.

(Read more: The 'gold rush' for 3-D printing patents )

2. Who are the major players?

There are roughly 30 companies that sell additive manufacturing systems for industrial production. Plus, there's a growing number of smaller businesses that specialise in desktop 3-D printers. Many companies overall are seeing solid double-digit profit growth, and steadily increasing stock prices.

Shares of Stratasys, for example, recently were trading around $96 a share, up roughly 48% from a year ago. The company, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., has installed 21,000 3-D printing systems for industrial use since 1991, more than any other company peer. In 2012, its annual profit jumped 60% to $59.6m.

European companies such as EOS, Concept Lazer and Arcam lead the industry in printing systems for metal products. (In metal printing, metal powder is fused together to create objects. In printing with plastics, tiny bits of polymers are melded together.) The leaders in metal 3-D printing have given them an edge in the lucrative market for aerospace components, health-care products and medical devices.

Notable newcomer ExOne , based in North Huntingdon, Pa., has focused on selling systems for industrial production that draw on a wide range of materials including metal. Since its IPO in January, shares have soared more than 150% to recently trade around $65 a share.

At the retail level, UPS will feature 3-D printing from Stratasys as part of a test program for entrepreneurs, architects and other customers. The 3-D printing market's other big names include 3D Systems and upstarts such as Shapeways.

3. How much does this technology cost?

Industrial systems can run as low as about $5,000, with high-end systems, topping hundreds of thousands of dollars. Consumer 3-D printers are available for roughly $1,000 or under.

Like any growing industry, 3-D printing is morphing quickly. Already sales in the middle tier of additive manufacturing systems-which span industrial operations and personal 3-D printers-is showing growing pains. More specifically, the low-end of industrial 3-D printing systems, with unit prices ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 are 'not selling as briskly' due to the popularity of consumer 3-D printers priced under $5,000, according to Wohlers.

As businesses and individual customers gravitate toward really expensive units or affordable desktop models, these factors combined are raising the average selling price of industrial systems.

4. Which industries stand to benefit from 3-D printing?

The early 3-D printing adopters are primarily aerospace firms and medical device manufacturers. For example, doctors have placed about 30,000 hip implants, manufactured by Arcam's 3-D technology. And 3D Systems machines creates Invisalign teeth straighteners.

In the aerospace industry, GE is using metal systems to make stronger, lighter fuel injectors for its LEAP jet engines. The redesigned components, using 3-D printing technology, consolidate as many as 20 parts into just one, cutting certification costs.

'We're saving probably on the order of 50 to 75% in total costs,' Gareth Richards, LEAP program manager at GE Aviation, told CNBC in July. 'That can be total material cost. It can be labor. It can be the design time,' he said.

Automotive, fashion, tech and consumer product companies have also invested in additive manufacturing.

5. How is 3-D printing advancing?

Additive manufacturing allows designers to create shapes and products that previously were not impossible. Traditional manufacturing is about subtracting or stamping out shapes from raw materials. In contrast, 3-D printing is about building objects layer by layer in cross sections.

Making parts and finished products using 3-D printing technology has grown to account for 28% of all additive manufacturing activity, up from virtually zero 10 years ago, according to Wohlers.

In recent years, researchers have experimented with printing a variety of products: clothing, batteries, surgical instruments for combat-even beef.

Xerox is printing experimental chips so small that they can enable a number of applications that today's rigid, comparably larger chips cannot accommodate.

Researchers are also making strides toward achieving what Wohlers calls the holy grail: printing replacement organs. Chinese researchers recently unveiled miniature kidneys comprised of cells printed from a hydrogel material, which live for up to four months.

(Read more: 3-D printing set to be this generation's 'moon shot' moment )

6. The growing global market, and the China factor

Additive manufacturing so far has tapped just 8% of its global market potential, according to consensus views of industry experts surveyed by Wohlers. By that measure, the market opportunity could be $21.4bn.

And seeing potential dollars signs, governments around the world are taking notice. China has dedicated $242m to a seven-year research project. A three-year public-private partnership in the United States will invest $70m.

Wohlers said he noticed an uptick in China's investment ever since President Obama called out 3-D printing in his State of the Union address in February. 'I think what it's done is light a fire, a bonfire under the Chinese to the point where they're determined to be leader,' Wohlers said.

-By CNBC's Tom DiChristopher. Follow him on Twitter @tdichristopher

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