Rarely is the need to innovate more critical to success than in manufacturing. Innovations in process, in machinery, or in materials could each create a significant competitive advantage. However, innovations in process, machinery and materials resulting from a major new set of technologies are a game-changer. Could 3D printing be the catalyst for the next set of major innovations in manufacturing?
3D Printing Emergence in BioTech
One industry that’s testing the waters with 3D printing and seeing major benefits is the biotech industry. Researchers in the biotech industry and associated universities are now using 3D printing to repair damaged tissue and to extend human capabilities with bionic body parts. Preliminary results include: 3D-printed livers (Organovofor, for use in pharmaceutical testing); 3D-printed skin (Wake Forest University, for use in burn treatments); 3D-printed retinal cells (University of Cambridge, as a cure for eyes damaged by glaucoma or other retinal diseases); and 3D-printed vascular system (Harvard University, as a support for artificial organs or replacement parts).
Central to each of these results is the development of specialized “inks” that are forced out of 3D printer nozzles onto the print bed. Printed biological products that address form and function require a complex mix of cells and non-biological materials, often including electronic nanoparticles. Inks have been developed that not only contain the relevant substances, but also retain structural integrity during the fabrication process. Sophisticated CAD models direct the 3D printers to lay each ink in the appropriate sequence and at the correct positioning.
The greatest investment potential for 3D printing in the biotech industry lies in the customization of “inks” to meet the optimal requirements of the fabricated product. Biotech involves some of the most strenuous requirements (living, functional products). Although there is clearly a large R&D expenditure, the protean nature of 3D printing inks and the ability of 3D printers to lay those inks into an infinite set of shapes provides a striking parallel to the initial development of plastics.
Next Steps for Adopting 3D Printing
Despite all the hype, 3D Printing technologies currently remain in the R&D phase for many organizations. For those enterprises that do not want to wait on the sidelines, a good manufacturing strategy is to embrace it as an R&D effort. Focus should be on products with high-value needs that are not adequately met with current processes. Some next steps for companies looking to move forward with 3D printing initiatives include:
1. Conduct an R&D Opportunity Assessment
This assessment will seek to minimize the cost, time, and risk associated with the necessary R&D of 3D Printing technologies.
- Identify the industries and industry sectors with the greatest R&D expenditures, such as government, medical and energy.
- If possible, partner with existing sources of 3D Printing R&D, especially in the development of “inks.”
- Exploit R&D centers also involved in nanotechnology.
2. Conduct a Needs and Market Assessment
This assessment will identify those products most likely to benefit in the near term from 3D Printing technologies.
- Identify the products needed and the optimal capabilities of those products. Focus on capabilities that are not adequately met today.
- Scope the market for those products.
- Size of the demand
- Profile of the demand (Best 3D Printing fits are low-inventory products, needed just-in-time. Demand should also be long-term and align with the likely R&D time-to-market.)
- Profitability margin
3. Develop an Operational Prototype
Development of an operational prototype of the manufacturing environment for the target product(s) will have a dual benefit. It will determine the immediate feasibility of the production process outside of the R&D environment. It will also provide a set of lessons-learned and best practices that can be applied to future 3D printing endeavors, whether or not the initial R&D results prove marketable.
3D printing technologies will enable manufacturing to create products that are not possible today using current manufacturing methods. Recent innovations using 3D printers like within the biotech industry provide insight into both the significant market advantages of high-value 3D-printed products and the significant initial costs (especially in R&D) to realize those advantages. In order to optimize the introduction of 3D Printing, manufacturing must leverage the recent experiences of the biotech industry and the lessons from the introduction of plastics over a century ago.
Aaron Bresinger and Yves Leclerc are both with West Monroe Partners.