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China and Desktop 3D Printer Markets Lead the Way for Longer U-Shaped Recovery

Chris Connery, VP of Global Research at CONTEXT
Chris Connery, VP of Global Research at CONTEXT

The global 3D printing market saw a+24% second quarter sequential rebound in domestic unit shipments of Industrial-class printers in China, and a global surge of +68% in Personal desktop printer shipments, according to latest data published by CONTEXT, the IT market intelligence company. These trends give hope to an otherwise depressed 3D printer market that saw hardware revenues fall by -27% from a year ago.

Shipments of high-end and mid-range 3D printers (that is, those in the €85K+ Industrial and €15K–€85K Design price classes) stalled significantly as businesses in the West put capital expenditures on hold and large parts of key industries were still paused. However, demand for Professional price-class printers (€2K–€15K) remained strong as people continued to work from home. Hobby-level Personal printers (<€2K) were also in demand and shipments of these are no longer hampered by supply-chain limitations now that production in China has resumed. Aggregate revenues from new printer shipments rose marginally from Q1 to Q2 (by +5%) but were down -27% from Q2 2019. Industrial printer sales accounted for 62% of global finished-good revenues in the period.

Industrial price class (≥ €85K)

As China came back on-line in Q2 2020, so too did demand for Industrial printers”, said Chris Connery, VP of Global Research at CONTEXT. Indeed, many Chinese vendors reported seeing shipments not just rise compared to Q1 but also witnessed even higher shipment rates than a year ago. “While overall shipments improved slightly from Q1 to Q2 thanks mostly to a bounce back in China, they remained very low in Western markets resulting in total shipments in the class down -38% from a year ago.” This portion of the market was already facing negative headwinds at the end of 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, but vendors are noting accelerated interest following the important role that 3D printing played in the heart of pandemic shutdowns.

Almost all non-Chinese top 20 Industrial printer companies saw sizeable year-on-year declines in the number of units shipped – with the notable exception of metal machine producer SLM Solutions. China’s UnionTech, Farsoon and HBD saw not only a sequential rise in shipments but also saw shipment totals actually greater than last year. Germany’s SLM Solutions has come back nicely from their reset year last year and were shipping against orders placed prior to the onset of the pandemic. While some vendors reported a slight sequential rebound in shipments, most saw a double-digit year-on-year drop in shipments from a year ago.

Design price class (€15K–€85K)

With 78% of this class of printers being shipped to Western countries, and with US and European economies effectively on hold throughout at least April and May, this segment faced significant challenges. Key end-markets, such as the dental industry, were largely closed down, severely impacting demand. As Western markets slowly began to re-open in June, demand rebounded slowly but unit-volume shipments were still down -34% on the previous year. The leaders in this segment, 3D Systems and Stratasys, accelerated layoffs in response to the pandemic and used the period to reset strategy.

Professional price class (€2K–€15K)

The strong Q1 demand for this type of printer, which arose from new homeworking scenarios, continued into Q2. Buyers are looking for ever-more professional products with even more robust feature sets. This has pushed average street prices up and allowed printer revenues to rise nicely even while shipments are only marginally better than a year ago. Weighted average prices for these printers have risen +15% since the beginning of 2019 making this the only price class to see year-on-year revenue growth (of +7%) in Q2 2020.

Personal price class (≤ €2K - excludes DIY kit printers)

Many products in this class either come directly from China or are highly dependent on supply chains associated with the country. While demand from quarantined hobbyists increased in Q1 2020, supplies were limited and, thus, new-product shipments were significantly hindered. This changed in Q2 when Chinese production came back online leading to a quarter-on-quarter shipment surge of +68%. While, in recent quarters, the finished-good market has been losing share to the growing kits market (dominated by Chinese players like Creality and which also saw great sequential shipment growth), Q2 was the first period since the beginning of 2018 in which non-kit printer shipments grew year-on-year, up +2% from Q2 2019.

Looking forward

While the market for new printers in a few key areas was challenging, the demands made of the installed base of printers in all price ranges increased as they were used to create pandemic-related items ranging from PPE to nasopharyngeal swabs. While this could not fully compensate for lost demand from closed markets (such as consumer products, education and the dental and automotive industries), it clearly demonstrated the flexibility of the technology, showing how it can be leveraged to help overcome supply-chain disruptions and could, in future, be so used across many industries. While recovery in the West is proving to be slower than some had anticipated, vendors have been reporting renewed interest in the technology throughout Q3 – from new sectors as well as known markets. They are hopeful that this interest will turn into Q4 orders: the final quarter typically accounts for 29%+ of each year’s shipments but it is now anticipated that it will account for 36%+ of those in 2020. The challenge to fulfilling these expectations is that key in-person events such as Germany’s FORMNEXT, where many large deals have historically been finalised, remain virtual as the West continues to deal with the pandemic.

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