Tuesday, 23 October 2012

3D Printing - Disruption or Evolution?

Is 3D printing a disruption, or an evolution? Additive manufacturing experts Econolyst identify six major impact of 3DP on both established companies, and new business start-ups alike. They are:
  1. Economic low volume production - through the elimination of tooling and expensive fixed assets
  2. Increased geometric complexity - through a layer-by-layer, particle-by-particle approach to manufacture
  3. Product personalisation - by coupling economic low volume production with geometric freedom
  4. Improved life-cycle sustainability - through design optimisation, material reduction and product light weighting
  5. New customer experiences - by coupling responsive manufacturing with the internet and retail
  6. Supply chain compression - by enabling manufacture further up the value chain and closer to the consumer/customer
Gartner - the IT industry analysts - track new technologies and have published a 'hype curve' which positions '3D Printing' at the peak of inflated expectations, set for a steep fall. Are they right? There certainly seems to be a lot of hype around. 

Fabbaloo recently commented that they were worried about an explosion of wild posts about 3D printing on a wide variety of blogs that attempt to shock and amaze. They quote headlines such as: 
  • 3D Printer can print entire rooms
  • Automation poses dilemma in labour market
  • 3D Printing spells the end of “Made in China”
  • Will the Guys with the [3D Printed] Guns Make the Rules?
  • 3D Printing Is The New Personal Computing
  • Future of Work: Custom Printed Bodies and the End of the 9-to-5 Job
  • 3D Printing may put global supply chains out of business
Does the Gartner hype cycle only reflect media hype? If so, we need to look to additive manufacturing experts, not IT industry analysts, to inform us of the likely future path for 3D printing. The term itself may be set for a fall in media hype, but the technologies are clearly set for steady and evolutionary impacts in many industries, as the stories in this blog illustrate. 

Today, I would describe the many kinds of 'additive' manufacturing as complementary to the three other classes of making: subtractive (taking material away), fabrication (combination and assembly) and formative (shaping, bending, casting). 3D printing is enriching those processes and because of its immediacy (no need to tool up!) and it is fostering greater collaboration between designers and makers, and between producers and consumers. Where is the disruption? I only enrichment and the emergence of a few genuine new business opportunities. The most prominent of those are companies such as Shapeways, Sculpteo and i-Materialize.

The thing is: no one really knows how quickly 3D printing technology will develop. Today, there are many variations, each incompatible with the other, and the universal 'Star Trek' replicator is a long way off. If an integrated or hybrid printer emerged which could materialize a complete and complex product consisting of many internal subsystems and with embedded electronics, battery and optics, there would indeed be huge savings for manufacturers in terms of labor, storage, handling and distribution. 

There would be no need to bring supply chain partners together physically - digital files for 'parts' could be transmitted over networks. These advantages would then erode today's business case for off-shore production. The months or years to tool up factories would be a thing of the past. Shipping and air cargo volumes would decline. Inventory could be kept ultra-lean via on-shore and near-customer 'on demand' production. Tiers of component suppliers may evaporate. It is even possible that manufacturers would be able to displace retail or distribution and regain 'Shop Window' prominence with their customers or consumers. And just as 3D printers may find a role in Space Exploration, spare parts could be printed as required in the field. 

All of these 'hyped' possibilities depend upon the further development of 3D printing, the integration of additive techniques able to fabricate complete products (and not just prototypes or materially homogeneous objects) and the emergence of more general-purpose machines that could (cost-effectively) be inserted into the value chains of existing product lines. 

This is why experts like Econolyst, and not Gartner, will be in the additive manufacturing consulting business for a long time to come. For while it is possible to create entirely new products using 3D printing such as this 3D printed human foot, no 3D printer can conjure up that idea by itself. The vast majority of 3D printers that are being put to work in the world will be used to enrich production processes associated with existing product lines. 3D printing will be absorbed into those industries as an evolutionary, and not disruptive, force. 

If I am wrong, I promise to eat my own 3D printed hat! But what do you think?

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