Manufacturing business models are about to be seriously challenged and the consumption experience of manufactured goods transformed beyond recognition by the disruptive 3D printing technology, a form of additive manufacturing.

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing in which spare parts or whole products can be “printed” following a prototype created in CAD programme. The technology creates products by gradually laying down material one layer at a time to recreate the prototype. The materials required for such manufacturing are added to the printer in the form of a powder, in a similar way colour cartridges are added to the laser printers we commonly use today. So, if I wanted a replica of my grandmother’s antique golden brooch, I could create one and even add my own spin on the design: I would need to scan the brooch and alter the design before pressing “print”.

Currently 3D printers are mainly used for prototyping, mainly in aerospace, automotive and medicine industries. However, more than 20% of 3D printing output is currently final products and this number is expected to increase to 50% by 2020.  The early adoption in these industries is driven by the fact that the 3D printing technology allows much higher degree of precision than traditional manufacturing machines. Home usage is so far limited to the garages and bedrooms of enthusiasts, in a similar way the first personal computers were adopted by a limited group of technology fans.

However, there are reasons to believe that 3D printing will become wide spread in both manufacturing and home use very soon.

  • Firstly, the examples of personal computing and the spread of the World Wide Web show how quickly a disruptive technology can be adopted by masses and change the way we live and work.
  • Secondly, as with many new technologies, the price of 3D printers and scanners was challenging only in the beginning. While early 3D printing machines cost around £20,000, now it is possible to acquire a 3D printer for just £300.  This puts it within a budget of an average middle-class household, let alone a manufacturing company.
  • Thirdly, there are significant benefits 3D printing can create for manufacturing industry, making the adoption worthwhile.

3D printing can significantly reduce manufacturing costs, aid quality management and simplify new product introductions. It can also break the mass production paradigm.

3D printing can reduce material costs, as it is “additive” in contrast to the traditional “subtractive” manufacturing. Traditionally, parts were cut out of a piece of material, creating waste. Additive technologies mean using only as much material as required. Costs of creating production lines are also eliminated. Quality of production will be supported by the precision of the new technology, where the designs are firstly created in a computer programme, and then replicated in a real life object exactly as designed. This means for example, that much lighter or more efficiently shaped aircraft wings can be created, as it is easier to “print” thin spare parts than to create them by hand. New product introduction becomes much cheaper, as new machines are not required in order to create a new product. A prototype can be created easily and piloted in the market, then the changes suggested by the pilot results can be adopted before the product is produced and launched in the market in large quantities.

However, there is a catch. The manufacturing business models will require re-thinking. Mass production changed our world in the late 18th century, but will it still make sense in the end of the 21st century?

3D printing challenges the idea of the economies of scale, as it is now as expensive to produce one separate unit as it is to produce one of a thousand units. Labour is no longer a significant player in the cost break-down, as 3D printers can work unattended. And it does not always make sense to concentrate production in the places where raw materials are extracted, as transporting the powder for printers can be cheaper than transporting ready products. Therefore, current logic of importing products and parts from other countries may no longer be valid, impacting the logistics industry as well.

But the greatest challenge, as well as the greatest benefit, that 3D printing creates for manufacturing comes out of the change in the way consumers will experience manufactured goods.

The greatest benefit of 3D printing is enabling greater customisation, and even personalisation  of products. In my view, 3D printing will further support a consumer trend enabled by social media. Social media enabled sharing ideas with people from all over the world, which led to the creation of niche ideas communities. Even if there are only 10 people in the world who have a specific common idea or interest, like collecting fruit stickers for example, they can now be close to each other in a social media community. It is now normal to be different.

A consumer can create their own niche ideas world in the social media community. Using 3D printing, they can take this from the “ideas” world into the real world, as now they can customise consumer products, surround themselves with individualistic items and share their designs with likeminded people who live thousands kilometres away. For example, Digital Forming offers personalisation of mobile phones, while Shapeways, a Phillips company, offers production of unique consumer products like gadgets, art and jewellery.

Enabling consumers to produce their own products presents a further challenge for manufacturers. If consumers can produce, what is the place of a manufacturing company in this world? In my view, it is no longer manufacturing facilities that will win bread and butter of a manufacturer, but the ability to generate ideas and designs of products that are helpful for consumers. Will 3D printing turn manufacturers of goods into idea generators?