To say that additive manufacturing has boomed in recent years would be an understatement.
Over the last three decades 3D printing has progressed from expensive prototyping technology used by an elite few, to a blossoming industry producing both smaller-scale commodities and fully functional parts and components for jets, autos, and more.
But will this evolving technology really be the cornerstone of our next industrial revolution?
Given all the hype around 3D printing, many were shocked when 3D Systems Corp., the leading maker of 3D printers and accessories, recently lowered its profit estimates for 2013 and its outlook for 2014. The resulting sharp drop in shares led some to speculate that the promising industry could be heading into decline.
What does the future hold for 3D printing?
The market ‘bubble’ may have burst, the long-term potential of this technology has not been changed, especially in mainstream manufacturing.
Industries like aerospace and automotive already utilize or plan to utilize 3D printing in their production processes. General Electric and Rolls Royce, for example, are both looking to produce 3D printed components for their respective jet engines, and automotive giant Ford has been using the technology to print test parts for years.
Other industries (defense, toys, food) are recognizing 3D printing as a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes.
According to a report by McKinsey & Co., the advantages of 3D printing over other manufacturing technologies will lead to five major disruptions:
Accelerated product-development cycles: 3D printing will allow for a faster and more productive R&D process, and a reduction in product-launch risk and time to market. But it will also require a robust supply chain, capable of keeping up with accelerated production while maintaining quality and consistency.
New manufacturing strategies and footprints: As the cost drops and capabilities increase, more parts could be created using 3D print, but this doesn’t mean that every part should be made this way. There must be a determination about which components will reap the most benefit from the technology. Manufacturers must also watch for the development of universal standards regarding printing materials, which could impact both cost and footprint decisions.
Shifting sources of profit: 3D printing has the potential to reduce the complexity and cost of some production types, forcing companies to differentiate their products in other ways, like offering customized designs to a broader customer base. The ability to create replacement parts could also change the structure of aftermarket services.
New capabilities: In order to create effective products, companies must not only increase their design knowledge regarding printing but they must also have engineers who can conquer the technical challenge of tuning print materials so they get the most out of them.
Disruptive competitors: While there are only a handful of leaders currently in the market, new businesses offering more customization or better designed products are popping up every day. These companies threaten to shift the focus from the ability to manufacture 3D products, to other areas such as design or ownership of customer networks. More competition can also lead to questions regarding ethics and regulation.
Manufacturers that are early adopters of 3D printing will be in the best position to take advantage of the technology once it really comes into its own.
Part two of this series will focus on the future of 3D printing in the consumer market.
Photo courtesy of Ford