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The use of 3D printing is not just augmenting manufacturing tools and technology, it has given rise to fundamentally distinct production processes and capabilities.
Although we can trace 3D printing back to Stratasys and the invention of the fused deposition modelling (FDM) printer in 1984, many 3D printing capabilities took root in the innovations of a web of enthusiasts collaborating in open source communities such as RepRap.
The original printers were limited to plastics, but suppliers large and small have developed techniques to print with a variety of materials and solve new use cases, each furthering 3D printing’s capabilities while transforming it into a scalable process.
Declining prices and the availability of component technologies have accelerated hardware innovation and expanded the market for 3D printing. In 2013, a team at Michigan Technological University developed a laser-sintering printer that was, at the time, less than 1% of the cost of high-end alternatives.
As input costs decline, higher-end makers will drop their prices to compete with the “artisanal”, DIY upstarts on Kickstarter.
Today, the 3D printing market has fragmented into highly specialised use cases and general-purpose machines, whose roots lie in a variety of techniques developed by innovative makers over the past 20 years.
Beyond the printer manufacturers, complementary software and service providers are emerging to fill the gaps in capabilities and expertise, while expanding the reach of 3D printing technologies.
Software suppliers are developing standardisation modelling tools because legacy design tools were not built with 3D printing techniques in mind.
There remains a complicated technical challenge in taking a 3D voxel (volumetric pixel) living in digital space and turning it into physical materials produced on a 3D printer.
Expect continued innovations analogous to postscript and PDF in the two-dimensional printing sphere akin to the 3D PDF developed by TechSoft 3D. Adobe and Autodesk are extending their portfolios with products that orchestrate interoperability across heterogeneous software and hardware sets.
For individuals or organisations without prerequisite skills or available capital there are service bureaus that enable them to explore the technology and launch different business models. Service bureaus help customers by outsourcing the end-to-end 3D print production process. For example, Neiman Marcus is partnering Shapeways to deliver on-demand customisable jewellery.
But these business models are still in their early stages. As printer prices and production times drop, it is likely that a kiosk model (like Kinko’s) that reaches customers seamlessly will emerge.
Today, 3D printing is often best suited to small production runs of low-precision parts where customers pay higher unit costs than those associated with scale manufacturing.
Tomorrow, innovation in speed, hardware and materials will expand production capabilities to complex industrial parts – and expand today’s isolated examples of expensive aerospace parts.
The first and most prominent use case for 3D printing is rapid prototyping, setting a new pace in agile product development. Prototype prints can take as little as a few hours, accelerating design and test cycles from months to weeks.
Seuffer, a German manufacturer of household appliances and commercial vehicles, reduced its lead time by 98% by using Stratasys 3D printers.
To match competitors racing to market, rapid prototyping will become a standard process for design groups spanning business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) products.
As printable materials expand, Forrester expects custom manufacturing to become viable for more products and services. Today, 3D printing is quickly becoming the default method for producing prosthetics and other customised medical devices, such as hearing aids and dental implants.
With general consumer products in mind, 3D printing can enables custom shapes, sizes and colours – from personalised chess sets to jewellery and sunglasses. For example, Sculpteo allows customers to design, customise and order smartphone cases to their liking.
The lack of diversity in materials and the limits of print precision confine complex manufacturing to research and development, art and some industrial-grade parts. An expansion of the range of materials and higher-precision printers will increase the commercial viability of new products and create new markets by solving complicated engineering challenges.
Nasa has already observed this potential, contracting Made In Space to develop 3D printers capable of printing in microgravity that will be able to manufacture spare parts that would otherwise take months or years to obtain.
Disrupting manufacturing and supply chains
In the early stages of the production sequence, 3D printing offers flexibility and transformation. It can produce single parts that replace subassemblies of multiple parts – such as a spool of plastic filament or a bin of powder replacing several individual parts that have to be manufactured, assembled and transported to the next stage.
And with often little or no setup time and cost to switch from making one colour or material to another, it is easier and faster to change features, such as design, colour or texture, on the fly without the cost and delay of new metal moulds or dies.
That gives much greater flexibility to the supply chain in a factory or across a continent, as changes in components and subassemblies can be made at the speed of the internet.
When 3D printing is used to manufacture parts, that portion of the process becomes natively digital, with every element produced under the continuous control of software. Contrast that with a conventional stamping or assembly-line process, where production is strictly analogue, and sensors plus automation are used to retrofit digital awareness and control onto the process.
As companies master the value of flexibility and visibility, they will seek to add business technology to analogue production processes so they can complement and extend the new forms of digitisation that result from 3D printing.
Decreasing hardware costs will enable more products and services to absorb the margins associated with customisation, spurring an economy of long-tail manufacturing.
Forrester recommends CIOs assess current technology management practices around product engineering, prototyping and manufacturing to anticipate how they might change with the adoption of 3D printing techniques.
Inflexible enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain and product lifecycle management solutions will be replaced by specialised best-of-breed systems that support a more dynamic manufacturing environment of varying cost and management structures.
Business analysts should prepare for new data to analyse the manufacturing process end to end. Another requirement will be a system featuring rapid analytics and extreme-scale operations on raw data.
IT should prepare to rationalise back-end infrastructure for mass customisation. Implementing a mass customisation business model will cause a surge in the number of unique products that must be managed.
Databases that are not designed to handle a flood of data will fail. For example, content management systems must support hundreds, if not thousands, of product variants around a single source of product truth in the form of a digital blueprint.
CIOs will also need to rethink their security practices and digital rights management (DRM) as digital product blueprints travel across customer, supplier and partner sites.
Maintaining product integrity will require better encryption and more stringent access protocols to safeguard design schematics and product blueprints. CIOs face an immature market for DRM across shared clouds and behind-the-firewall systems.
The use of 3D printing has the potential to disrupt business and technology mandates, presenting a new opportunity for CIOs to gain relevance as business enablers.
Forrester recommends that CIOs assign a liaison to manufacturing and engineering groups to better understand the business’s innovative practices and requirements.
This article is based on the Forrester Research report 3D printing drives digitization further into products, processes and delivery models, by Sophia I Vargas and Michael Yamnitsky.