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3D Printing: A new economic paradigm materializes

Jeremy Rifkin, the noted futurist, believes a key pillar of the “Third Industrial Revolution” will be 3D printing, where “everyone can potentially be their own manufacturer.” It fits the classical definition of a disruptive technology as it stands to shift the world from the 100+year old model of batch manufacturing to one where a lot size of one is the most economical solution.

What is 3D printing? In the old Star Trek series, using a “replicator” almost magically, food and drinks could be created on-demand. A crew member would push a button and, in a compartment that looked like the beverage dispenser in your refrigerator, instantly a meal or a glass with a drink would appear.

Though the University of Exeter has experimented with 3D printed chocolate, 3D printing is not relevant for food or drinks, and certainly not as instant as the “replicator.” It is however being used to manufacture a host of products, from plastics to even metals.

Also known as additive manufacturing, a device called a 3D printer literally builds objects, layer by layer. By comparison, traditional manufacturing typically uses a subtractive process, whereby materials are cut, ground, or finished though various steps to create a final product. With 3D printing, the product is created in one step, and is ready for use.

3D printing stands to fundamentally transform the traditional, hundreds-year-old supply chain of all the industries where it finds a future home. In fact, it obliterates so many of the stages in the supply chain that a consumer may someday be able to design and print many products of their choosing in their own home!

3D printing is used in the automotive and aerospace industries, but also in medical devices and consumer goods. The global market for 3D hardware, supplies and services was around $4.5B in 2014. A continued annual growth of around 25%/year is expected to increase that to around $17 billion by 2020 according to research by AT Kearney, the management consulting firm.  MHI and Deloitte jointly conducted a survey of some 900 supply-chain professionals and found that 14% use the technology today but 48% expect to adopt the technology within the next decade.

Initially, 3D printing found a home in R&D where it could be used to rapidly make prototypes and do it in one step. An engineer could go directly from a CAD rendering to a finished prototype in a matter of hours in many cases. By comparison, even tooling to make a part can take months. The reduction in product development time and prototype costs more than paid for the expensive 3D printers.

Aerospace, which has much slower production rates, was an early adopter of 3D technology for small production applications. Today, 3D printed parts are found in numerous aerospace production applications. Boeing is using 3D printing technology to rapidly fabricate tools for composite interior parts out of Ultem. General Electric Co. expects to produce as many as 200,000 fuel nozzles for its aviation business using 3-D printing.

In automotive, a start up company named Local Motors captured the imagination of the automotive industry when, in 2015, it “printed” an entire car in 12 hours at a show in Chicago. The car is called the Strati and was featured on shows like the Today Show. Of course this is much slower than traditional manufacturing where a major OEM can build 12 cars around the world in a minute but it showed the potential of the technology for production.

Using  $1 million giant printers installed in urban locations, Local Motors is planning to certify the car and make it available to the public in a few years using a completely different business model than today. A relatively small storefront, like the one it opened in a suburb of Washington, D.C. last year, will “print” a customized car on demand. James Earle, Local Motors’ lead engineer on the project explained: “Instead of having one manufacturing location, like Detroit or Japan, we’ll have micro-factories all across the world so people come in and customize their auto-buying experience.” The Strati is targeted to cost around $30,000, of which $5,000 is expected to be the cost 3D printing and will source its powertrain and running gear from a major OEM.

An alternative approach being developed by a company backed by Google Ventures, Carbon3D is borrowing from yet another science fiction movie, the Terminator. An object slowly rises from a pool of liquid resin that is solidified by light projected through the liquid. Materializing objects out of a pool of liquid can increase the production speed to up to 100 times faster than conventional 3D printing, according to the startup Carbon3D. They claim that their printer takes 40 minutes to print an object that would take 12 hours on a machine that prints layer-by-layer. According to companies like Ford, it holds promise for making conventional auto parts as the technology continues to mature and costs can be significantly reduced.

Beyond production cycle time, the price of materials is also a significant barrier to 3D printing. The cost of materials required for making the same plastic part using 3D technology can be as much 10x when compared to the equivalent amount of material used in traditional injection molding. Even adjusting for the high cost of injection mold tooling, 3D printing processes have a long way to go to find an economical home in high volume production.

Recognizing that additive manufacturing is an emerging technology, SAE has formed an Additive Manufacturing Committee (AMS-AM), which will develop and maintain Aerospace Material Specifications (AMS) and Aerospace Standards (AS) for additive manufacturing. Meanwhile, many of the Formula SAE teams have already adopted the technology for making parts for their race cars.

We have seen over and over throughout history how new, disruptive technologies grow and mature to displace old ones, ultimately doing the job better and cheaper. In the case of 3D printing, the manufacturing world order is effectively on notice as it is only a matter of time. Not only will the technology change industries, it could change the world order. Countries like China which have mastered the science of mass production may no longer be relevant to the degree they are today. Outsourcing may be replaced with the ultimate in-sourcing – on-demand manufacturing of products in or near the home.

However it turns out, a new, revolutionary approach that mimics how nature produces things is blossoming before our eyes. In the same manner as nature “produces” living things, we are learning to grow things with minimal waste. This truly is a fascinating step in mankind’s history.