3D printing – a method of creating three-dimensional objects by printing them in layers from a digital file – has been compared with the invention of electricity or the internet. Scientists in Edinburgh have used it to produce stem cells; Foster & Partners has designed buildings that could be printed on the moon - its possibilities seem endless.
It certainly appears like science fiction to an observer: it earns its other name, additive manufacturing, because it creates objects by adding material rather than subtracting it. It allows you to personalize products, and is more environmentally friendly due to the lack of waste produced.
While only time will tell if 3D printing will make a huge impact on manufacturing as we know it, there is little doubt that it is potentially a transformational technology, particularly for small businesses. It turns the traditional approach to design and manufacturing on its head – and could also have long-lasting implications for the digital supply chain too.
Instead of making products in a central factory and shipping them out to warehouses, 3D printing means parts, products and pretty much anything can be made locally. Not only does this reduce manufacturing times, it also reduces carbon footprints.
3D printing could presage a wave of ‘in-sourcing’, as manufacturers begin making products closer to home, bringing manufacturing back from bases such as China to Europe and the USA. This is particularly the case for lower-volume, higher-value or more bespoke products – the healthcare sector is already using it to print out artificial joints and items such as dental crowns.
Indeed, technologically advanced sectors such as the aerospace, automotive and mobile telecoms sector have embraced it to produce strong but light components. 3D printing is fast becoming a business reality: late last year, the government-backed Technology Strategy Board announced new grant funding of £7m to support companies undertaking R&D projects in 3D printing.
3D printing certainly has limitations: the cost of equipment, for one. The specialized materials typically required and the speed of production mean that for medium-to-high volume manufacturing, the CBI estimates that 3D printing would need to be four times as fast and a quarter of the price to be competitive – and it’s not near this yet. However, it comes into its own for uses such as rapid prototyping – which in future will mean designers don’t have to ship to different countries but can simply send information in seconds. Moreover, 3D printing also means that products can quickly be re-designed – by a designer halfway across the globe, if necessary – if they prove faulty.
However, it isn’t just the physical supply chain that needs to be examined but also the digital one, since the intellectual property resides in the file from which the object is printed rather than the product itself. Product manufacturers need to examine how this data chain is managed and securely transported as well, particularly as 3D printing becomes more commonplace.
3D printing is a disruptive technology that could make traditional supply chains obsolete. Goods could be ‘near-sourced’ - produced far closer to customers - reducing shipping and air cargo costs and volumes. Inventory levels could fall due to mass customization, as goods are made to order. The implications for business are potentially huge, and are still being realized as this technology matures.
3D printing: the facts
• 3D printing or additive manufacturing is the method used to print out solid objects from a digital file, layer by layer.
• Printers range from high-end industrial models to domestic devices, capable of printing out personalized consumer goods.
• Although all devices build products in layers, there are different approaches used. At the simplest end, liquid resin is fed into the device and fired out to produce the product. More sophisticated approaches create products from layers of powder that are then fused by a laser for a more precise approach.
• Most products are made from a single material or a simple combination. They can be printed in a range of colors and varnished for a professional finish.
3D printing in numbers
• $1.9bn: size of additive manufacturing market in 2011
• $7.5bn: predicted size of market in 2020 based on organic growth
• 8%: current market penetration of the technology
Source: CBI, Nov 2012
Mark Patterson is VP of innovation and product incubation Europe at DHL Supply Chain