How 3D Printing Is Disrupting Manufacturing

February 11, 2016

Emerging technologies are always fascinating to watch. While some do extremely well, such as digital photography, others are so disrupted by better replacement technologies that they eventually fall flat on their faces (anyone remember 8-track tapes?).

One emerging technology that promises to disrupt manufacturing on a global scale is 3D printing, also referred to as “additive manufacturing” or AM.

Why the term additive? Because 3D printed products are made using a group of technologies through the addition of layers from a digital 3D blueprint. According to the MHI 2015 Annual Industry Report, 3D printing is one of the hottest emerging technologies around. AM will eventually replace a variety of traditional manufacturing methods by offering the capability to create more complex designs, increase speed to market and reduce waste.

From 0% to More Than 28% in 10 Years

Only a decade ago, the use of 3D printing for producing parts or final products was virtually nonexistent. Today, 28.3% of parts production and final product assembly involves AM. This process continues to improve in a variety of ways. When most people think of plastic parts or products, they envision traditional injection molding or product fabrication. Instead, 3D printing builds parts and products one layer at a time.

So why the potential for such large-scale disruption? For one, barriers to manufacturing (i.e. investment in infrastructure) are removed. One small firm can design a product or part, while another similar size company anywhere in the world could then 3D print that same product or part. As a result, economies of scale are dramatically changed. Customization can occur with no incremental costs. In addition, a small company can now produce fewer items at a much lower cost compared with traditional assembly line production.

AM Not Limited to Plastics

When 3D printing first emerged on the scene, the stereolithographic technology was most closely associated with using liquid polymers that harden on contact with laser light. Today, 3D printing is even capable of printing quickly with high-performance metals. According to the MHI 2015 Annual Industry Report, the most popular industry applications now for AM are aerospace and defense, automotive, healthcare, consumer products and retail. And as AM continues to improve over the long term, industry experts expect a broader application for mass production and customization of fast-moving consumer goods.

Supply Chain Disruption, Too

Since AM could eventually revolutionize how a variety of products are manufactured and distributed, that means a direct impact on the supply chain. This also entails a shift in transportation from finished goods to raw materials instead. It’s not out of the question that even logistics industry companies themselves could diversify into becoming additive manufacturers.

Associated factors affecting the supply chain include low-volume production, mass customization (i.e. personalized toys or products or products with images of themselves), shortened supply chain with localized production (products and/or parts printed on demand versus mass production at a centralized manufacturing center and fulfilling orders from a distribution center), optimized design and low-cost production (reduces or eliminates scrap and changeover costs). It’s important to note that even though AM material costs are currently higher than traditional raw materials, AM material costs are steadily decreasing.

Real-World Example

For an actual 3D printing application, the MHI 2015 Annual Industry Report cites the following example of accelerating speed to market that is very interesting:

An industrial manufacturer purchased a fused deposition modeling 3D printer to in-source building form, fit and function prototypes for items such as mounting brackets for motors, conduit boxes, fans and breakers. Models that once cost $500 to prototype are now produced for $15 in-house through 3D printing. Prototype creations that once took four to six weeks now only take an hour. As a result of faster turnarounds, the company has been able to deliver more innovative products, cheaper and faster to market.

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