The world around us has advanced so much that science fiction is fast becoming a reality! Moving from prototyping to tooling, additive manufacturing commonly known as “3D printing” has expanded to full-scale end-part production and replacement part production. Be it a 3D printed bionic ear enabling you to hear beyond human hearing frequencies, or 3D printed cake toppings taking culinary innovation to another level, or 3D printing of your dream house in just a few hours - 3D printing is revolutionizing every walk of life! According to Wohlers Report 2014, worldwide revenues from 3D printing are expected to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to $12.8 billion by 2018, and exceed $21 billion by 2020.
No wonder one of the biggest players in printing, HP (Hewlett-Packard), entered the field with a faster, cheaper version of a 3D Printer focused on the Enterprise Market. So, is this the first step from a “revolutionary” Maker Movement to an industrialized scale that technology eventually needs to survive for the long term? A world that can take a 3D physical product or idea into the 2D digital world and then back out to 3D physical form, anywhere across the globe! Anywhere an IP address and enough bandwidth are available to be able to transmit the Digital Model. This does have significant disruption potential. How much, and when this will happen will of course depend on several factors across economics, technological feasibility, policies, and of course, politics. So, are we finally ready to go beyond the growth that DIY enthusiasts have driven from 200% to 400% in personal 3D printers between 2007 and 2011? (McKinsey study)
Before we explore the future, let’s look at what has been already achieved or nearly achieved across markets beyond printing prototypes, toys and models.
In the field of Medicine, 3D printing of complex living tissues, commonly known as bioprinting is opening up new avenues for regenerative medicine. With an improved understanding of this technology, researchers are even trying to catalyze the natural healing mechanism of the body by creating porous structures that aid in bone stabilization, in the field of orthopedics. This cutting edge technology, in conjunction with stem cell research, is likely to revolutionize made-to-order organs, cutting across transplant waiting lists. Even intricate human body parts like the brain can be replicated using 3D technology to aid in complex medical surgeries through simulation. The Aerospace industry, an early adopter of this technology, is already designing small to large 3D printed parts saving time, material and costs. 3D printing also offers the biggest advantage critical to aerospace manufacturers – weight reduction. It also accelerates the supply chain by manufacturing non-critical parts on demand to maintain JIT (Just-in-time) inventory. The power of additive manufacturing can do away with several manufacturing steps and the tooling that goes with it.
The Automobile world is already witnessing crowd-sourced, open-source 3D printed vehicles driving off of the showroom floors. Local Motors caught the audience by surprise by 3D printing its car ‘Strati’ live at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. So, how can an auto part be a challenge by any means? Are we headed towards making that exhilarating smell of burnt rubber a thing of the past? Something future generations (or even the preteens from today) will ask - was that such a big deal? How about robots with muscle tissue powered parts? The 3D printed ‘bio-bot’, developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is likely to be really flexible in its movements and navigation. With this breakthrough, researchers are contemplating the possibility of designing machines enabled with sensory responding abilities to complex environmental signals. So, the ability to relate to a robot’s dance moves may soon be a major challenge!
Where does all this lead us?
The excitement growing around 3D technology is palpable and not without a reason. 3D technology surely shifts the ownership of production to individuals and brings to light most of the inflexibilities of mass-production. Of course, not everything can be 3D printed (at least not yet), but a wider use of 3D printers might reduce the need for logistics as designs could be transferred digitally leading to a decentralization and customization of manufacturing. 3D scanning as an enabling technology will also help in creating an ecosystem to support users. Layer by layer manufacturing by 3D printing has the dexterity to efficiently fabricate intricate geometries and thus reduce the wastage caused by traditional manufacturing methods.
By reducing the cost and complexity of production, 3D printing will force companies to pursue alternate ways to differentiate their products. It will also help companies enhance their aftermarket services by facilitating easy and on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts. As manufacturing is moving closer to the consumer, the consumer is fast transforming into a prosumer!
Today, 80% of manufacturing facilities surveyed in the USA are suffering from a lack of talent with respect to the complex process of traditional manufacturing. However, 3D printing can definitely make a workforce far more adept in producing manufactured goods, available.
There are opportunities here for entrepreneurs to convert an idea to a finished product with far less dependency on costly manufacturing processes, and an ability to make their business plans economically viable. While the new generation of digital technologies are making more of the services economy move remote in terms of location, from digital receptionist, to web based kiosks for practically all aspects of the travel industry to telemedicine; it’s ironic that 3D printing is actually having the opposite impact. It’s bringing manufacturing closer to the customer.
Of course, there are hurdles to overcome, not the least of which are entrenched incumbency and policies, which will be governed by more short term economic and social issues. The positive outcomes of such revolutions have to also overcome issues around security, IP protection, and several other aspects that will probably act to slow down the pace of adoption.
McKinsey has estimated a potential of generating an economic impact of $230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025 with various 3D applications, the largest impact being expected from consumer uses, followed by direct manufacturing. As the breadth of application of 3D printing continues to grow, it will be interesting to observe how industries will mix with and influence the future of additive manufacturing. Almost every sector of the industry is riding the 3D opportunity, bringing innovations to reality.
The world is poised to hop on to a decentralized industrial revolution. Are you?