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The Future of 3D Printing

March 1, 2013


In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, “Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns. So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Department of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America.” [“Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address,” White House, 12 February 2013]


Clearly, the President believes that 3D printing marks a new era in manufacturing that could change the entire business landscape. Kinaxis analyst Andrew Bell agrees that “change is inevitable.” “The question that we need to answer,” he writes, “is how will it change?” [“What Could 3D Printing Mean for the Supply Chain? The 21st Century Supply Chain, 9 January 2013] Bell offers a few thoughts on the subject; he writes:

“One thing is for sure, the supply chain isn’t going away. As usual, it will likely just get more complicated. Here are some of the areas that I propose will influence the supply chain as 3D printing becomes more and more mainstream, and I’m sure there are many more.

  • Local Manufacturing – More things will be made closer to their final destination. This will have definite impact on the logistics industry, and will change the way business try and schedule their operations.
  • Customizability – It will be easier, faster, and more efficient for companies to provide made-to-order products to their end users.
  • Distribution of raw materials – There will need to be a dramatic shift in the way raw materials are distributed since these printers will require raw materials in order to produce the final product.
  • New replacement parts model – Business will be able to provide replacement parts as required instead of trying to predict the need and manufacture the stock well in advance (as they do today)
  • Blurred boundaries within businesses – A closer integration of the various departments of an organization will be mandatory. A siloed manufacturing department will no longer allow for a competitive business.

“My predictions may be right, or they may be wrong, but one thing I think all will agree on is that 3D printing will make the supply chain more complex and more difficult to manage.”

Jim Stockton notes that 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) has been around since the 1980s. It has only broken into the mainstream because of recent breakthroughs that now have everyone talking. [“Top Innovations in the World of 3D Printing,” BestDesignTuts, 12 February 2013] He writes:

“Some products produced with this technology that might already be a part of your daily life include shoes, jewelry, clothing accessories, and educational products. The field of engineering is also benefitting from the development of 3D printing, in terms of boosting geographic information systems, aerospace engineering, engineering projects, and construction processes. Furthermore, humans are already benefitting in the field of healthcare with dental and medical instruments and products being formulated with 3D printing. The automotive industry is able to make more reliable products at a quicker speed, and the industrial design and architecture fields are able to develop new products that were inconceivable only a decade ago.”

What is really exciting people, however, is not so much what is currently being manufactured but the potential of what could be manufactured using 3D printers. Stockton writes:

“Engineers and scientists around the world are looking forward to the near future, in which printers will be able to create equipment, tools and devices via open-source models. This kind of advancement will drastically change the ways in which research and practical medicine are performed. Chemists are even attempting to build chemical compounds using 3D printers, and scientists have already started to replicate fossils and other ancient materials to better understand their compositions and functions. Architects wonder if in the future, buildings themselves can be printed from the ground up. The future of 3D printing is very bright – both in small-scale products for individual users and for large-scale projects, such as printing meters of building materials in the course of an hour and making intricate parts of automobiles and planes.”

Sculpteo, a French-based 3D printing service, created the following infographic that provides a lot of interesting information about additive manufacturing and where it is headed.




Vivek Srinivasan and Jarrod Bassan offer ten trends that will likely define the direction that will be taken by additive manufacturing in the years ahead. [“Manufacturing The Future: 10 Trends To Come In 3D Printing,” Forbes, 7 December 2012] They are:


  1. 3D printing becomes industrial strength. Once reserved for prototypes and toys, 3D printing will become industrial strength. You will take a flight on an airliner that includes 3D-printed components, making it lighter and more fuel efficient. In fact, there are aircrafts that already contain some 3D-printed components. The technology will also start to be adopted for the direct manufacture of specialist components in industries like defense and automotive. Overall, the number of 3D printed parts in planes, cars and even appliances will increase without you knowing.
  2. 3D printing starts saving lives. 3D-printed medical implants will improve the quality of life of someone close to you. Because 3D printing allows products to be custom-matched to an exact body shape, it is being used today for making better titanium bone implants, prosthetic limbs and orthodontic devices. Experiments in printing soft tissue are underway, and may soon allow printed veins and arteries to be used in operations. Today’s research into medical applications of 3D printing covers nano-medicine, pharmaceuticals and even printing of organs. Taken to the extreme, 3D printing could one day enable custom medicines and reduce if not eliminate the organ donor shortage.
  3. Customization becomes the norm. You will buy a product, customized to your exact specifications, which is 3D-printed and delivered to your doorstep. Innovative companies will use 3D printing technologies to give themselves a competitive advantage by offering customization at the same price as their competitor’s standard products. At first this may range from novelty items like custom smartphone cases or ergonomic improvements to standard tools, but it will rapidly expand to new markets. The leaders will adjust their sales, distribution and marketing channels to take advantage of their capability to provide customization direct to the customer. Customization will also play a big role in healthcare devices such as 3D-printed hearing aids and artificial limbs.
  4. Product innovation is faster. Everything from new car models to better home appliances will be designed more rapidly, bringing innovation to you faster. Because rapid prototyping using 3D printers reduces the time to turn a concept into a production-ready design, it allows designers to focus on the function of products. Although the use of 3D printing for rapid prototyping is not new, the rapidly decreasing cost, improved design software and increasing range of printable materials means designers will have more access to printers, allowing them to innovate faster by 3D printing an object early in the design phase, modifying it, re-printing it, and so on. The result will be better products, designed faster.
  5. New companies develop innovative business models built on 3D printing. You will invest in a 3D printing company’s IPO. Start-up companies will flourish as a generation of innovators, hackers and “makers” take advantage of the capabilities of 3D printing to create new products or deliver services to the burgeoning 3D printer market. Some enterprises will fail, and there may be a boom-bust cycle, but 3D printing will spawn new and creative business models.
  6. 3D print shops open at the mall. 3D print shops will begin to appear, at first servicing local markets with high-quality 3D printing services. Initially designed to service rapid-prototyping and other niche capabilities, these shops will branch into the consumer marketplace. As retailers begin to “ship the design, not the product,” the local 3D print shop will one day be where you pick up your customized, locally manufactured products, just like you pick up your printed photos from the local Walmart today.
  7. Heated debates on who owns the rights emerge. As manufacturers and designers start to grapple with the prospect of their copyrighted designs being replicated easily on 3D printers, there will be high-profile test cases over the intellectual property of physical object designs. Just like file-sharing sites shook the music industry because they made it easy to copy and share music, the ability to easily copy, share, modify and print 3D objects will ignite a new wave of intellectual property issues.
  8. New products with magical properties will tantalize us. New products – that can only be created on 3D printers – will combine new materials, nano scale and printed electronics to exhibit features that seem magical compared to today’s manufactured products. These printed products will be desirable and have distinct competitive advantage. The secret sauce is that 3D printing can control material as it is printed, right down to the molecules and atoms. As today’s research is perfected into tomorrow’s commercially available printers, expect exciting and desirable new products with amazing capabilities. The question is: What are these products and who will be selling them?
  9. New machines grace the factory floor. Expect to see 3D printing machines appearing in factories. Already some niche components are produced more economically on 3D printers, but this is only on a small scale. Many manufacturers will begin experimenting with 3D printing for applications outside of prototyping. As the capabilities of 3D printers develop and manufacturers gain experience in integrating them into production lines and supply chains, expect hybrid manufacturing processes that incorporate some 3D-printed components. This will be further fueled by consumers desiring products that require 3D printers for their manufacture.
  10. “Look what I made!” Your children will bring home 3D printed projects from school. Digital literacy – including Web and app development, electronics, collaboration and 3D design – will be supported by 3D printers in schools. A number of middle schools and high schools already have 3D printers. As 3D printing costs continue to fall, more schools will sign on. Digital literacy will be about things as well as bits.

If, as President Obama believes, a manufacturing revolution, led by 3D printing, is coming, it behooves business leaders in every field to ask themselves how it could affect their business model and assumptions about the future.

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