3D printing production is still in its infancy, but it is already inevitable. And if you look closely, you will find numerous indications that this historic shift is already well underway.
For the last decade, 3D printing has been the playground of the maker community, while commercial applications have been limited to prototyping. But now, industrial 3D printing has reached its tipping point, and is about to go mainstream in a way that will revolutionize the economy.
3D production of functional end-use parts is already one of the fastest growing areas in the manufacturing sector. In 2014, a PWC survey found that 11% of manufacturing companies had already switched to volume production of 3D printed parts or products. As costs continue to drop and quality rises, it will be impossible to put this genie back in the bottle.
Here are seven ways that 3D printing production is already in use today and disrupting business as we know it.
3D printing has been used for nearly 20 years to create physical replicas of new part or product designs. Often referred to as rapid prototyping, this process has typically been anything but rapid, with service providers often taking a week or more to deliver a single piece. But recent breakthroughs in automation coupled with the entry of global distribution companies like UPS have changed everything, in some cases leading to same-day production and shipping. These changes are dramatically collapsing design cycles. A product that would need a month to go through three or four design changes in the prototyping phase now takes a week. Products are getting to market faster, and companies are saving significant time and money.
3D printing has moved beyond prototyping into first-run production, allowing for true market testing and rapid design iteration. Witness Ford: For most of the company’s existence, engineers had to create a brand new mold if they wanted to test a prototype engine. The process would typically take six months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, Ford is 3D-printing these molds in four days at a cost of $4,000. Taking advantage of this enormous reduction in time and cost, Ford recently decided to make not just a single engine prototype for a new car, but numerous versions to be tested simultaneously. No longer bound by the constraints of the old industrial process, engineers can explore dozens of variations and rigorously test them all, fine-tuning the engine’s performance.
The result of advances in 3D printing production will be an eventual blurring of the lines between prototype and product. Smaller companies will reap great benefit from this technology, introducing innovative products without huge inventory expense. Multiple versions of industrial parts or even consumer goods can be tested for use in the marketplace—the ultimate focus group. The sort of A/B testing that is constantly done in the digital world is now possible in the physical world.
With conventional manufacturing, a company has to commit to creating tooling or molds before a single end use part can be produced. If creating a mold costs $50,000 and each incremental part costs $.50, then the very first part will cost $50,000.50! This works out fine if you are producing millions of parts. But what if you only need 500? With 3D printing, there are no set-up costs whatsoever. Today, for production runs of less than 1,000 items, most companies will consider 3D production as a cost effective alternative. (Fast forward to the inevitable and not-so-distant future when prices for 3D printing production have dropped 95% or more, and "Made in China" tags are a collector’s item.)
Until recently, if you needed to have your knee replaced, a nurse would bring a box directly into the operating room and the doctor would select one of the five possible knee designs that she felt most resembled your knee. Today, your actual knee is scanned and a perfect replica is printed and ready for you prior to surgery. This is an example of mass customization – where large quantities of an item are produced, each one customized. Invisalign has built a multi-million dollar business producing teeth alignment devices using 3D printing to completely customize every single device. With customization comes premium pricing (aka the Starbucks skinny mocha latte frappuccino vinni vicci). Nearly every company I talk with is exploring how to introduce product customization to better serve customers and increase profits.
Manufacturing companies making a new product typically also manufacture a multi-year supply of spare parts, producing large quantities that are expected to meet demand for 10 years or more. But holding inventory is very expensive. Costs include the capital to produce the inventory, shrinkage (where parts are simply lost or stolen), obsolescence, warehousing, insurance, tracking and distribution. What is your company warehousing? How many times per year are those parts needed? Why not simply print them on demand instead? With 3D printing production, you make what you need, when and where you need it. Virtual inventory improves the efficiency of every business that uses anything manufactured. Inventories around the world will soon shrink dramatically as virtual inventory goes mainstream.
3D printing not only disrupts the initial stages of production where years’ worth of inventory is created; it fundamentally changes how companies view the end of a product’s life. Today, a ten-year-old refrigerator that works fine mechanically but is missing two shelves or a door seal would most likely be scrapped. After a decade of service, all the spare parts produced for it are depleted. The manufacturer will consider the product "dead," and will no longer service it. But with 3D production, you now have "the long tail of parts." Hold on to the digital design files, and you can print any part for as long as it is needed. Older but still-useful products don’t become waste; their lifespan need not be pre-determined by scale production limitations. The "long tail" fundamentally changes the way designers and engineers are thinking about and planning for a products existence well into the future.
3D printing’s lower entry barriers and ability to enable radically more complex and useful objects are initiating a new era of product innovation. The rush of design possibilities will eventually compel existing companies to rethink nearly all of their current products. Companies are already replacing traditionally-manufactured items with 3D printing production, taking advantage its superior design capacities and flexible production schedule. As highlighted in the first article of this series, GE is using 3D metal printers to produce its fully redesigned new fuel injection system for jet engines, reducing components from 21 parts to 1 and incorporating geometries that are simply impossible to create using any other manufacturing method, resulting in astonishing increases in efficiency. This innovation renaissance will only accelerate as companies move beyond redesigning existing products to creating new products that today are unimaginable.
We find ourselves at a key inflection point in history. The possibilities of growth and innovation are endless, and companies have already begun to seize on what is possible today. But the current uses for 3D printing in production are what email was to the Internet in 1994: an example of the incredible utility of a new technology, but also, merely a glimpse of the sweeping changes to come. In the next and final article in this series, we will all take an eye-opening step forward and see what it might be like to live in a 3D printed future. Hold onto your seats!