The World around us has advanced so much that science fiction is no more a fiction. Moving from prototyping to tooling, additive manufacturing commonly known as 3D printing has expanded to full-scale end-part production and replacement part production. Be it a 3D printed bionic ear enabling you to hear beyond human hearing frequencies, 3D printed cake toppings taking the culinary innovation to another level, 3D printing your dream house in just a few hours — 3D printing is revolutionizing every walk of life. According to Wohlers Report 2014, the worldwide revenues from 3D printing are expected to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to $12.8 billion by 2018, and exceed $21 billion by 2020.
No wonder one of the biggest players in printing, HP (Hewlett-Packard), entered the field with a faster, cheaper version of 3D Printer focused on Enterprise Market. So is this the first step from a “revolutionary” Maker Movement to an Industrialized Scale that technology eventually needs to survive for the long term? To a world of taking a 3D physical product or an idea to the Digital World, which happens to be 2D and then back out to 3D physical form anywhere across the globe, where an IP address and enough bandwidth is available to be able to transmit the Digital Model. This does have significant disruption potential. How much and when this will happen will of course depend on several factors across economics, technological feasibility, policies and of course politics. So are we finally ready to go beyond the growth that the DIY enthusiasts have driven from 200% to 400% in personal 3D printers between 2007 and 2011 according to a McKinsey Study.
Before we pose those questions, let’s look at what has been already achieved or near achievement across markets beyond printing prototypes, toys and models.
In the field of medicine, 3D printing of complex living tissues, commonly known as bio printing, is opening up new avenues for regenerative medicine. With an improved understanding of this technology, researchers are even trying to catalyze the natural healing mechanism of the body by creating porous structures that aid in bone stabilization in the field of orthopedics. This cutting edge technology in conjunction with stem cell research is likely to revolutionize the made-to-order organs, cutting across the transplant waiting lists. Even intricate human body parts like the brain can be replicated using the 3D technology to aid in complex medical surgeries through simulation.
The Aerospace industry, an early adopter of this technology, is already designing small to large 3D printed parts saving time, material and costs. 3D printing also offers the biggest advantage critical to the aerospace manufacturers – weight reduction. It also accelerates the supply chain by manufacturing non-critical parts on demand to maintain JIT (Just-in-time) inventory. The power of additive manufacturing can do away with several manufacturing steps and the tooling that goes with it.
The Automobile world is already witnessing crowd-sourced, open-source 3D printed vehicles driving off of the showroom floors. Local motors caught the audience by surprise by 3D printing its car ‘Strati’ live at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. So how can an auto part be a challenge by any means? Are we headed towards making that exhilarating smell of burnt rubber a thing of the past? Something future generation will ask, what the big deal about that was. How about robots with muscle tissue powered parts?
The 3D printed “bio-bot,” developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is likely to be really flexible in its movements and navigation. (So, forget about the much jibed about robotic movements.) With this breakthrough, researchers are contemplating on the possibility of designing machines enabled with sensory responding abilities to complex environmental signals.
So where does all this lead us?
The excitement growing around the 3D technology is palpable and rightly so not without a reason. 3D technology surely shifts the ownership of production to the individuals and brings to light most of the inefficiencies of mass-production. Of course, not everything can be 3D printed, but a wider use of 3D printers might reduce need for logistics as designs could be transferred digitally leading to a decentralization and customization of manufacturing. 3D scanning as an enabling technology will also help in creating an ecosystem to support users. The layer by layer manufacturing by 3D printing has the dexterity to fabricate intricate geometries efficiently and hence reduces the wastage caused by traditional manufacturing methods.
By reducing the cost and complexity of production, 3D printing will force companies to pursue alternate ways to differentiate their products. It will also help companies enhance their aftermarket services by facilitating easy on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts. As manufacturing is moving closer to the consumers, the consumer is fast transforming into a prosumer.
There are, of course, hurdles to overcome, not the least entrenched incumbency and policies, which will be governed by more short term economic and social impacts as the positive outcomes of such revolutions are often difficult to envision.
McKinsey has estimated a potential of generating an economic impact of $230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025 with various 3D applications, the largest impact being expected from consumer uses, followed by direct manufacturing. As the breadth of application of 3D printing continues to grow, it will be interesting to observe how the industries will mix with and influence the future of additive manufacturing.
Almost every sector of the industry is riding on the 3D opportunity bringing innovations to reality and the world is ready to hop on to a decentralized industrial revolution. Are you?