After a slow start, 3-D printing is poised for a huge growth spurt in the next few years.
The size of the market, including 3-D printer sales, materials and associated services, reached $2.5 billion worldwide last year, according to research firm Canalys. That figure is expected to grow to $3.8 billion this year and soar to $16.2 billion globally by 2018.
Canalys senior analyst Tim Shepherd said falling prices and advances in technology are making the printers an increasingly feasible option for enterprise and consumer uses.
"This is a market with enormous growth potential now that the main barriers to up-take are being addressed," Shepherd said. "As it matures, there is clear and substantial potential across numerous sectors, such as engineering and architecture, aerospace and defense, and medical (particularly in the fabrication of custom prosthetics), for 3-D printing to have a dramatic impact within five years."
When 3-D printers entered the mainstream consciousness a few years ago, they were dismissed as too expensive and impractical. Then they became thought of as novelty items that could be used at home to print trinkets such as cheap fashion jewelry or toys.
Usually about the size of a microwave, the machines "print" three-dimensional objects by melting material -- typically plastic but sometimes metal and even chocolate and depositing it layer by layer based on a computer-generated design.
Enthusiasts of 3-D have long touted the endless possibilities and say that as prices drop, the printers could one day uproot traditional manufacturing and become as ubiquitous as television sets or tablets. Soon consumers may be able to print food, clothing and jewelry from their homes.
In the U.S., the value of the 3-D printer market grew 109 percent in 2013 to $711 million and is forecast to grow 79 percent in 2014 to hit $1.3 billion. The U.S. market is expected to grow to $5.4 billion by 2018.
Shepherd said the fast-evolving market was still in its infancy. In the next few years, he said he expected to see new 3-D printing companies and use cases emerge.
"We are at the inflection point for 3-D printing. It has now moved from a new and much-hyped, but largely unproven, manufacturing process to a technology with the ability to produce real, innovative, complex and robust products," he said. "This is a market that will look very different in five years' time."