3D Printing: Rocking Manufacturing

A world full of 3D printers that can make almost anything will probably be an almost inconceivably complex place, presenting both incredible opportunities and unique challenges for new and existing manufacturers.

Most products are made of many parts. They result from many manufacturing steps performed by different machines, each with its own operator. 3D printing replaces these steps with fundamentally different machines that make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled.

3D Printing Beats Traditional Manufacturing

Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production and its economies of scale, and low labor costs, which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors. 3D printing eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled, and one worker may run an entire roomful of 3D printers.

As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, thereby democratizing manufacturing. Also, it is no more expensive, per part, to 3D print one part versus a million parts, to customize every part instead of making them all the same, and to make highly complex parts. Because 3D printing may eliminate the need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, tens of thousands of small to medium sized 3D printing fabricators will pop up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally. 

Revolutionizing Product Design

Products have always been slaves to how they can be made. If a design cannot be made with traditional machines, it remains trapped on paper or in a computer. Thus, product designers have been forced to design for manufacture. 3D printing changes that. In a 3D printed world, designers no longer need to design for the limitations of existing machines because 3D printers can build almost any design, regardless of complexity. With virtually no limitations on manufacturing, 3D printers turn the creative process on its head. Product designs no longer need to be broken into multiple parts, according to manufacturing constraints. Designers can immerse themselves in the creative process because they can 3D print prototypes immediately. The mediocrity and monotony of mass-produced designs can be replaced with mass-customized designs. Because almost any product can be 3D printed, the design can follow the designer’s vision and is limited only by the imagination.

Customers Become Competitors

3D printers can be used not just by traditional manufacturers, but also by their customers. This is happening today. A university in Australia used 3D printing to repair hundreds of turbine blades used by a power generation company. Without this process, the blade manufacturer would have sold hundreds of new replacement blades, but it looks like it will be selling far fewer new blades as time, and blades, wear on.

The refurbished parts are as good as or better than the originals, and the process costs far less than buying a new part. This is great news for the part owner and terrifying for the blade manufacturer. By using 3D printing to repair the blades, the customer no longer needs to buy new ones and has blurred the line between customer and manufacturer.

Companies Must Adapt or Die

Suppose a customer, or suppose that the military, starts 3D printing its own spare parts, rather than buying them from the OEM. Some OEMs will adapt. Maybe they will start selling 3D printable digital blueprints rather than making parts. They may become digital design companies and close their factories.

Other OEMs will not adapt, as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital imaging revolution. Some companies may be unable to adapt. In my book I use a fictional company, ZeframWD, a manufacturer of warp drives in the next century, to show how 3D printing may force traditional manufacturing companies to adapt their business models.

IBM wrote in a 2013 3D printing study that “For leading global companies to prosper in this new environment, radical change is essential.” Some companies will take full advantage of the implications of 3D printing. Other companies will not be so lucky, and many are sleeping at the wheel. In the manufacturing climate of 3D printing, they must adapt or die. For example, the turbine blade manufacturer will be forced to adapt if most of its customers use 3D printing to repair their blades, rather than buying new ones. It may find that licensing the digital blueprints for the blades beats making and selling them.

Everything Will Happen

3D printing has generated a lot of hype. Some people say it is difficult to separate the hype from reality, but doing so is actually quite simple. Anything that sounds farfetched probably isn’t, but it will probably take longer to happen.

A world full of 3D printers that can make almost anything will probably be an almost inconceivably complex place, presenting both incredible opportunities and unique challenges for new and existing manufacturers. 

John Hornick is a counselor and litigator with Finnegan and the author of the book 3D Printing Will Rock the World.

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