Until recently, “3D printing” was a little-known term. Today, it is a household name and an accepted technology entering its next major development phase. Right now, we can see 3D printing (additive manufacturing solutions) for production is taking off and we believe will fundamentally change manufacturing.
3D printing’s success doesn’t lie in replacing traditional manufacturing, its success lies in performing manufacturing differently and leveraging its unique capabilities.
For manufacturing applications, 3D printing is where prototyping was 15 years ago, and over time, we expect it will become widely used, complementing traditional molding, machining, casting and fabricating. We expect that growth will rise sharply in the next five to ten years, and in this phase we will see new practices become embedded in the manufacturing culture.
Perhaps the greatest asset of 3D printing is that it is an enabler for corporations and individuals. In fact, additive manufacturing is being used in three types of manufacturing and processes: personal, augmented and alternative manufacturing.
For individuals, 3D printing enables them to make something they previously could not. It lets them release their creative or technical talents and bring ideas to life. It doesn’t matter if the piece is ornamental or functional, organic or geometric, raw or painted it is by the very definition, end-use part production.
Manufacturing has already reached the home and 3D printing is playing a part in modifying consumer behavior through the new ecosystem that it has enabled. Creative individuals have access to hundreds of thousands of consumers. Online resources like Thingiverse, a MakerBot digital content sharing site, mean that creators no longer have to battle for valuable shelf space or seek seed capital to start manufacturing.
While the consumer market will be big, we believe that the industrial manufacturing market will be even bigger.
For manufacturing applications, there are two segments: augmented manufacturing and alternative manufacturing. Augmented manufacturing is where 3D printing makes the tools, like jigs and fixtures that are used to manufacture. Alternative manufacturing is where 3D printing makes the end-use item or part.
Augmented manufacturing can decrease time and cost while improving quality and capabilities. Production aids like jigs, fixtures, organizers, shields, guides and templates are low-cost, high-reward items that can be produced by 3D printing, today.
Some companies are just starting to produce these low-risks, potentially high-reward items, while others have been doing it for a decade. They aren’t simply replacing machining; they are redesigning their product lines to make the work more efficient, accurate, fast, simple and profitable. Resulting time and cost savings are estimated to be 40 – 90% in lead time reduction and 70 – 95% in cost reduction.
In addition, as inventory becomes a “Digital” inventory, customers benefit from:
- Reduced storage space requirements
- Quick tool replacement or revision
- And simple tool duplication
The saving of a few seconds per unit through the availability of quickly produced production aids can rapidly be seen on the bottom line.
The best opportunities are when needs match what 3D printing delivers, or when traditional manufacturing can’t deliver. 3D printing’s growth will come from applications where it offers a more efficient process. This is somewhat dependent on technology advancement, but also depends on discovering the applications where its value overshadows any perceived limitations.
Education will increasingly be a growth driver of 3D printing.
It was always recognized that 3D printing had to be placed in education to nurture students on the technology. In the late nineties, systems started at $60,000, but with the decline in entry-level system prices, today it is commonplace to find 3D printers in primary and secondary schools.
As a result, students exposed to 3D printing will enter the workforce with the expectation that it is available and understand when and how to use it.
Secondly, it inspires children to consider coursework and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and, consequently, manufacturing. 3D printing can put manufacturing in an engaging light, making it an attractive career choice.
We are in exciting times and 3D printing will enable significant changes in the way we buy and make the products we desire. 3D printing will be part of your future, limited only by your imagination.