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3D Printing and the Decentralized Industrial Revolution

The world has advanced so much that science fiction is becoming a reality. This is abundantly clear in the manufacturing sector as technology moves from prototyping to tooling, to additive manufacturing commonly known as 3D printing.

This article originally appeared in IMPO's April 2015 print issue.

The world has advanced so much that science fiction is becoming a reality. This is abundantly clear in manufacturing sector as technology moves from prototyping to tooling, to additive manufacturing commonly known as 3D printing. 3D printing has expanded to full-scale end-part production and replacement part production. Be it a 3D printed bionic earenabling 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 rapidly becoming the newest industrial revolution. 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, Hewlett-Packard, entered the field with a faster, cheaper version of 3D printer focused on the Enterprise Market. This is the first step from a revolutionary Maker Movement toward a full industrial scale revolution. The world has entered a time where it is possible to take 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 — it is all possible. This does have significant disruption potential. Questions arise, such as, how much and when will this happen? But it all depends on several factors from economics and technological feasibility, to policies and politics. So the question remains, are we 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 this question can be answered, it’s important to examine what has already been achieved across markets beyond printing prototypes, toys and models.

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 Just-in-time inventory. The power of additive manufacturing can do away with several manufacturing steps and the tooling that goes with it.

The automotive industry is already witnessing crowd-sourced, open-source 3D printed vehicles driving off of the showroom floors. Local motors caught the audience by surprise when they 3D printed its car ‘Strati’ live at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. So if a company is able to produce an entire car, it is clear that simply creating auto parts shouldn’t be a challenge. Are we headed towards making that exhilarating smell of burnt rubber a thing of the past?

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 flexible in its movements and navigation. So, forget about the much jibed about robotic movements. With this breakthrough, researchers are contemplating 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. 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, 3D printing has the dexterity to fabricate intricate geometries efficiently and reduces the waste 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 quickly transforming into a prosumer.

There are of course hurdles to overcome, not the least being 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 industries will mix with and influence the future of additive manufacturing. Almost every sector of the industry is expecting 3D printing to bring new innovations and to make them a reality. Most importantly, the world is ready to hop on to a decentralized industrial revolution. Are you?

Sukamal Banerjee is the Global Head of Engineering and R&D Services (ERS) business line at HCL Technologies