A world in which manufacturing on-demand is a reality might not be that far away, as the price of 3D printers is dramatically falling.
The technology has the potential to fundamentally change the economies of scale for small, innovative enterprises.
For decades 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – was the preserve of larger enterprises, as investment costs were prohibitive for smaller companies.
But with costs for lower end plastics-printing machines having plummeted in the last few years, the technology is now on the cusp of becoming mainstream.
Paul Doe, chief designer at motorsport technology designers Prodrive, says 3D printing is already transforming the way the company does business. His previous experience with the technology had been making prototypes and the main reason Prodrive initially bought its 3D printer in 2009 was to make non-functional prototypes. “But our use of the machine changed quite a lot in 18 months to actually making production parts,” he says. “We discovered the technology was good in terms of strength, when we were using technology to make parts to test on the car.”
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The company gradually started experimenting, by making more parts. “We then realised it was actually good enough for production,” says Doe. “We’re able to build shapes that you can’t mould cast or forge – pieces you can’t make in any other way but through additive manufacturing.” All this means specialist parts now cost a fraction of what they once did. “This allows us to avoid fixed costs and it means we don’t have to carry stock because we can manufacture parts on demand,” says Doe. He cites one car project, where a total of £80,000 was saved using 3D printing. “We’re still learning a lot about what we can do with the machine,” he adds.
Printing specialist parts makes the investment worthwhile
Not only can the company print parts, but it can print its own tools. “Modification of pieces of tooling – which previously would have cost around £10,000 – we can now print for £10,” says Doe. “The machines themselves were a heck of an investment in the past – some of the big ones were six figures. They now cost around £20,000.” He says the company has already recouped the cost.
Moves to reduce the cost of printers using a wider range of materials, such as glass, metals and rubber, will be welcomed. “It’s something I’d expect to happen in the next five to 10 years,” Doe says.“For us this is transformative, although it won’t be for everyone.” He points to large companies such as Aston Martin, which has a huge manufacturing base, and the economies of scale that go with that. “3D printing technology will have to move on before it can make parts for cars on scale. “It all depends on the quantity. If you are making millions of parts, it’s not going to help, whereas for us it is extremely cost-effective as we only make 20 cars a year,” says Doe.
Andy Millns, co-founder of 3D printing firm Inition, agrees that 3D printing has grown exponentially over the last few years, with the company having recently worked with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to replicate some of its statues to sell in the shop.
He says there are various reasons the technology has taken off, such as the introduction of low-cost fused deposition modelling (FDM) – an additive manufacturing technology commonly used for modelling and prototyping; open-source machines, which have got into the hands of thousands of people, and more creative industries now being involved. “It was an explosion in the number of people having access to machines, with the software tools following quickly behind,” says Millns
“The UK has a strong calibre of design and artistic skills and this is going to create business models as it opens up a new world of design,” he says.
Grand designs Robin Wilson, lead technologist at the Technology Strategy Board, has followed the development of 3D printing since working at Jaguar in the mid-1990s. “The biggest adoption is being seen in the automotive, jewellery and medical industries,” he says. But building critical structural parts for areas such as the aerospace industry is still about 15 years away. “One of the implications, and an important messages for us, is around design. We see design as the key to unlocking the potential of this technology,” Wilson adds. “3D printing enables designers to experiment with new bespoke solutions for products and really lends itself to small companies.
Modification of pieces of tooling – which previously would have cost around £10,000 – we can now print for £10
Paul Doe, Prodrive
This is a disruptive and transformative technology, because it means you don’t need a big factory with big tools - you can localise it instead. Ultimately, we could have corner shops with a range of materials and machines to make a whole variety of products, which will cut down on transport costs.” investment into 3D technology to help boost design. The challenge now is to connect all this technology, as it involves various different stakeholders, says Wilson. “The technology won’t transform the manufacturing industry to the point where it becomes unrecognisable, but it will be a key enabler for change for a lot of businesses.”
However, the rise of 3D printing is not without a new set of legal problems. Isabel Napper, partner at law firm Mills & Reeve and head of the firm’s technology division, believes there could be increasing issues around copyright as 3D printing takes off – analogous to the problems experienced in the music industry with the onset of digital content through sites such as Napster. Issues are going to come when people upload design files that potentially infringe patents and design rights.
“The UK has a huge history of innovative design. If we can create a sensible regime to deal with intellectual property rights in 3D printing that would put us in a strong position,” she says. Clear regulations will avoid the mess that the music industry got into around digital patents, Napper adds. But she believes it is encouraging that reports such as the government-funded Hargreaves Review have already flagged the need to investigate 3D printing. “Hargreaves highlights the unique point we’re at in developing the 3D printing industry – and that it wants the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to launch a review and take evidence from a variety of people to consult on what needs to be done next.”
The report said copyright issues associated with 3D reproduction need to be addressed before it becomes a widely-used technology if IP law is to enable, rather than inhibit the technology’s potential to contribute to growth.
More innovative thinking
Pete Bailliere, an analyst at Gartner, says now printers have fallen in price, companies can make experimental investments without having to do a full return on investment cost benefit analysis.
“It has the potential to be fundamentally disruptive as it enables more rapid product development through prototyping, and making products to order,” says Bailliere. “In five years, we will see big uptake of this technology. It improves the ideation process, which before was constrained by costs.
That could benefit any business in product design hugely.” As students come out of university, they will be well-versed in computer-aided design, and in creating objects that can be printed. Though, there is still a lot of scepticism in the older generation, he says. Gartner predicts that by 2015, seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3D printers. Those ahead of the curve stand to reap the reward, he says.