The Disruptive Nature of 3-D Printing

Stephen DeAngelis

February 11, 2014

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), wearable devices appeared to capture the most attention (see my post entitled Wearable Devices and the Quantified Self). However, Peter Svensson, a technology writer for the Associated Press, reports that another group was also garnering a lot of attention. “Last year,” he writes, “there were only a handful of 3-D printing companies at the gadget show. This year, there were thirty, and the organizers had to turn others away because they couldn’t fit them in. The 3-D printing area of the show floor drew dense crowds that gawked at the printers and their creations, which ranged from toys to tea cups to iPhone cases.” [“3-D Printing Set To Break Out Of Niche,Manufacturing.net, 13 January 2014] Shawn Dubravac, an analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association, the organization that puts on the CES, told Svensson, “With 3-D printing, we’re moving to a world of mass customization.” Mass customization is one reason that many analysts believe that 3D printing (or, as it is also known, additive manufacturing) is ushering in a new industrial revolution.

Chris Fox, Managing Editor of Product, Design & Development (PD&D), hasn’t jumped all the way on the additive manufacturing bandwagon; nevertheless, he still believes that it has become a major market disruptor and that last year may have been a turning point. [“3D Printing: 2013’s Biggest Market Disruptor,” Manufacturing.net, 23 January 2014] He writes:

“Being a technology that has been around for some 25 to 30 years, additive manufacturing (3D printing) was bound to make some intriguing changes and advances, as is expected every year. So why on Earth is 3D printing the biggest market disruptor of 2013? Back in October of last year, 3D Hubs began collecting data on how people were using 3D printers. The results from November provided some insight. Nearly 75% of all 3D printers were being used for ‘prototypes’ and ‘gadgets’. … As somebody who is neck deep in the industry that birthed the need for this technology, this loose data tells me two things.

  • Professionals or prosumers are still the majority users of 3D printing technology.
  • Everybody else is making junk.

I mean junk in the most playful sense possible, considering my desk is filled with various toys and models that were 3D printed on my Afinia from Saelig. The other 25% (or so) is the reason 3D printing is the biggest market disruptor this year. Phone add-ons, toys, models, fashion… these are almost certainly consumers utilizing their desktop 3D printer purchase. … In the engineering industry we are painfully familiar with the capabilities and technology surrounding additive manufacturing, but only recently has the greater populace become aware of even the most rudimentary 3D printing capabilities. Why the masses (and popular media) suddenly decided to take notice in 2013 is an elusive question, but if anything has rocked the world of home appliances, it’s the new emergence of this old technology. One can only hope that the popularity will help advance the technology rather than provide us with a million different versions of the same technology à la cell phone cases or mobile amplification.”

At the same time that Fox is labeling 3-D printing “old technology,” Megan Haynes is calling it “a relatively young technology.” [“3D printing goes mainstream,” Strategy, 1 April 2013] Although they sound like they disagree, I’m not sure that is the case. What Haynes describes in her article is the relatively new adoption of the technology by mainstream companies to do the things described above — particularly customizing products. Max Valiquette, the managing director of strategy for PR firm Bensimon Byrne’, told Haynes that “there is a huge opportunity for companies to create personalized experiences in stores, creating customized add-ons for products.”

If there is really going to be a new industrial revolution associated with additive manufacturing, the revolution is only at its beginning. But there are reasons to believe that change is coming. In a survey conducted by IDC Manufacturing Insights last year, “more than 43 percent of survey respondents declared they have a formal process in place to design future production plants.” [“More Than 43 Percent of Manufacturers Report They Are Designing ‘Factories of the Future’,” SupplyChainBrain, 6 June 2013] These factories will be more heavily automated than factories in the past and may, in fact, involve some additive manufacturing processes. The article reports:

“Manufacturers … are going back to basics and putting a renewed premium on production knowledge driven by the need to protect and enhance their technology. They realize now that the direct involvement in production operations fosters innovation and improves customer service. All these factors combined with the growth of transportation costs consequent of oil price developments and the need to produce closer to clients for better flexibility and service are favoring manufacturing insourcing initiatives in several developed economies, including the U.S. and U.K. ‘The manufacturing industry is back onstage in developed countries worldwide. Governments, media, manufacturers themselves, and their people are all changing their mindset with a stronger focus on production,’ said Pierfrancesco Manenti, Head of IDC Manufacturing Insights, EMEA, and Practice Director, Operations Technology Strategies. ‘We are about to witness a new generation of manufacturing enterprises where operational processes on the plant floor — at the very heart of the enterprise — are considered the centerpiece of this transformation.'”

James Robbins and Sunny Webb insist, “As prospects grow for 3D printing technology, … manufacturers should start thinking now about how best to apply it to specific situations.” [“Rethinking Industrial Manufacturing Through 3D Printing,” Automation World, 9 July 2013] They continue:

“There is a shift to the digitalization of manufacturing with Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, to drive greater efficiencies and value through the engineering supply chain. This makes 3D printing very interesting in terms of its potential as a competitive tool, and will require that companies start thinking now about how best to apply it to their specific situations. … Historically, 3D printing — or additive manufacturing, as it also is known — has been an additive process of slowly building a physical model out of a polymer material layer by layer. But today, hardware and software advances have enhanced 3D printer performance, enabling more accurate and precise prototyping through 3D software, and making it possible for multiple materials to be fused together in one print. For manufacturers, this could have broad business implications and drive substantial cost savings in areas like product development, testing and production, while also improving supply chain performance.”

You might be surprised at the range of manufacturers that are using or considering the use of additive manufacturing. One of the more intriguing applications could be in the housing sector. Stephen Murgatroyd reports, “Two companies — one in London and one in Amsterdam — are racing to be the first to perfect a process for the printing of 3D houses. Giant 3D printers can build a 2,500-square-foot house in as little as 20 hours.” [“3D printing set to disrupt the housing industry,” Troy Media, 30 November 2013] Murgatroyd indicates that the printers can do everything including “the electrical work, plumbing, tiling, finishing work and painting.” If you’re interested you can watch the following video on the subject.

Booz & Company analysts Tim Laseter and Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat believe that there is still a lot of hype associated with 3D printing. “For business executives,” they write, “separating true technological breakthroughs from wishful thinking is inherently challenging.” [“A Skeptic’s Guide to 3D Printing,” strategy + business, 26 November 2013] They continue:

“Perhaps the best example today of an innovation whose surrounding hype may be obscuring its substance is 3D printing. It thus provides an ideal case study on the importance of applying time-tested forecasting tools before getting too caught up in new-technology excitement. … There’s no question that 3D printing offers a new manufacturing model. It eliminates the need for expensive, customized tooling. And as an additive manufacturing approach rather than a subtractive one, it uses less material. The cost of digital printers continues to decline; startups are now offering hobbyist versions for less than US$250. But as our technology forecasting analysis will show, 3D printing isn’t poised to take the place of factory production anytime soon. … Assessing the predictions of structural changes to the manufacturing industry, such as those prompted by the current hype around 3D printing, requires the application of two … well-tested concepts: economies of scale and total landed cost. When considering how and where products will be manufactured, size matters, but so do location and the cost of transportation around the globe. … That said, … our forecast for 3D printing does not suggest a seismic shift in the fundamental paradigms of manufacturing. [Nevertheless,] it can still have a profound effect on the production location and business models for certain artifacts. … Perhaps the most promising near-term industrial application for 3D printing involves the production and inventorying of spare parts. … Even though the 3D printer won’t alter the fundamental structure of global manufacturing, perhaps it can help bridge the digital divide and create new opportunities for manufacturing. Paralleling the opening of communications to remote and financially distressed areas, a shared low-cost 3D printer could allow village residents to print tools, replacement parts, or even simple medical apparatuses. … We may eventually live in a world where factories that mass-produce goods become obsolete, because we’re producing them ourselves in the comfort of our own homes. But we wouldn’t bet on that happening anytime soon.”

Robbins and Webb agree that the hype needs to be ignored and realities about additive manufacturing realistically assessed. Still, they conclude, “The rapid drop in costs means that industrial product manufacturers should consider exploring its potential manufacturing benefits today to be prepared to take advantage of them as part of a digital, high-performance tomorrow.”