Fast-emerging 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses a computerized digital model to fabricate virtually any kind of object one can imagine. Its popularity is increasing as engineers and designers find ways to use it to make parts and prototypes that often were more difficult and costly to produce by different means.
“It’s definitely going to be a disruptive technology,” said Robin Hirsch, FCMA, CGMA, a consultant with Kingdom Technology partnership in the UK. “It’s going to make a huge difference to an awful lot of industries.”
Global technology market analyst Canalys projected that the size of the global 3D printing market, including 3D printer sales, materials, and associated services, will expand from an estimated $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion by 2018.
The technology has the potential to transform supply chains and manufacturing processes and enable product customisation that could change consumer habits.
Uses in manufacturing
3D printers facilitate the easy creation of three-dimensional objects out of whatever material the printer supports, be it plastic resins, a paper and glue mixture, or even chocolate. It often works like this: A user scans an object using a 3D scanner. The image is used to create a computer-aided design (CAD) file. The file is sent to the printer, which then systematically layers tiny amounts of material in the form dictated by the file.
But here’s the game-changer, according to experts: Users can download existing CAD files from the internet and skip all the scanning and programming. In the future, consumers may be able to purchase, say, an out-of-stock part for an older car. Under that scenario, consumers would be able to buy the CAD file online — in other words, purchasing the intellectual property — and simply print it out.
Imagine that on a larger scale and one can understand why 3D printing has the potential to profoundly affect supply chains. US-based manufacturer General Electric estimates that by 2020, 100,000 parts will be manufactured through 3D printing processes in its aviation division alone. Already, more than 300 3D printers are in use across GE.
The aviation industry has become fertile ground for 3D printing. In the developing world, 3D printing may make devices for critical services such as water testing and sanitation more readily available and less expensive for populations in need.
“We’re roughly at a tipping point for 3D manufacturing,” said David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, CGMA, a consultant with Arxis Technology, whose clients include a 3D systems company in California. “And that has to do with the cost of the equipment, it has to do with the speed of the equipment, it has to do with what materials can be handled by these 3D printers. All of these things are evolving and very rapidly making 3D printing an option or a reality for manufacturers at some level of scale.”
Initial uses have often been in prototyping and in custom-designing products or parts for customers, rather than mass production. Some of the uses include:
- Biotechnology: 3D creations have been used for prosthetics, splints, and stents for airways, arteries and veins, and bones damaged by trauma or disease.
- Aerospace, automobile, and appliances: Joe Gibbs Racing, a US auto racing company, needed a custombuilt duct outlet for one of its cars in a matter of days. A 3D printing company got the part made in time for the next race.
- Food: UK-based Choc Edge is integrating 3D printing with chocolate to help confectioners develop more intricate designs. US candymaker Hershey has a multiyear agreement with a 3D printing company to create and develop edible treats.
- Art and architecture: 3D printers allow artists to make sculptures out of a wide variety of materials. Tech specialists such as London-based Lee 3D provide printing services for architects and engineers. And in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently invited digital artists to spend two days scanning objects at the museum for conversion into 3D images.
The chance for consumers to order and custom-design products presents a new dynamic that businesses need to consider. Will a soccer fan in the UK want all his or her kitchen drawer handles moulded in the image of the Manchester United crest? That’s a question with business implications for the manufacturers of kitchen drawer handles and for Manchester United.
Shipping and logistics companies, meanwhile, may be affected if custom-made products can be printed out in the home, because CAD designs can be transported over the internet for no cost.
“Let’s say there’s a clever designer in India,” Hirsch said. “They can customise a design for you, and you print it out on your printer. You don’t then need all that logistics to send all that stuff across the world.”
3D printing presents opportunities for innovation, and also for competitors or even consumers to innovate in ways that affect your business.
A recent report by management consulting company Accenture says that business leaders need to think about the advantages that 3D printing can provide to their processes — and to their customers. The report advises that businesses:
- Consider ways 3D printing could allow them — or competitors — to put more power to customise products in the hands of their customers.
- Contemplate how 3D printing can be used for improvements at any point in the supply chain.
- Reflect on the chances that, in the long term, products in their sector could move from low-customisation and mass production to high-customisation and specialized production.
“It’s got a lot of ability to transform what we do,” Cieslak said, “and how we do it.”
3D debits and credits
Many companies are exploring uses for 3D printing as they re-evaluate processes for production and research and development. Here are three issues business leaders need to consider with respect to 3D printing:
Reduced inventory costs. Using 3D printing for on-demand production of out-of-stock replacement parts for vehicles and appliances has the potential for manufacturers to save money on warehousing inventory.
- Elimination of waste. Because 3D printing uses only the amount of material needed for the product, it leaves virtually no waste — unlike many other manufacturing methods.
- Regulation or certification. 3D-printed products in highly regulated industries may need to receive regulatory approval or certification before it is legal for them to be sold.
The future is now
If you’d been asleep for 20 years and woke up to survey today’s global business environment, you’d be convinced that you had been cast in a science-fiction movie:
- Employees at companies worldwide are wearing sensors that track how far they walk in a day, and sports teams are fitting athletes with monitors that track their movement and performance. Meanwhile, companies are researching uses for Google Glass eyewear, which gives users the ability to use voice commands to record video and surf the internet.
- Unmanned aircraft are being developed for use in surveillance and photography, and companies such as Amazon and Google are experimenting with technology that may one day result in drones delivering packages to your door.
These developments can have profound implications for companies and innovators around the world. The only limit to their ability to transform business — aside from safety and privacy regulations — is your imagination.