Achieving the right balance is truly complex and difficult to generalize, but the good news is that 3D printing has reached a level of critical mass.
For the first time in its 20-year history, additive manufacturing is poised to enable unique and better ways for manufacturers to serve their markets. Embracing digital technologies will better help manufacturing industries participate in market transformations as compared to being disrupted by them. Look no further for the type of disruption digital brings than to the transformation of transportation where Uber eclipsed Fortune 500 companies in valuation in less than two years by harnessing the power of digital technology.
Although its roots are in ideation and prototyping applications, additive manufacturing is positioned to move well beyond these narrow origins to include tooling, fixtures, production parts and ultimately will represent the furthest outposts of distributed manufacturing networks. In fact, in a recent survey sponsored by Jabil, we confirmed that some manufacturers are already using additive manufacturing for production parts, tooling and fixtures, bridge production and even repair purposes.
The Harvard Business Review advises readers that additive manufacturing is gaining considerable momentum in large-scale industry and “will increasingly be used to produce high-volume parts and products.” Author Richard D’Aveni writes: “This progress will speed up adoption and propel more experimentation and practical application. What was a niche technique is morphing into a broad-based movement driven by multiple technologies and many kinds of companies.”
We in the industry have witnessed numerous recent advancements, which are underpinning the case for far-reaching 3D printing manufacturing, speeding progress and driving more practical use of related technologies. Here are just a few:
According to independent consulting firm Wohlers Associates, print quality and machine reliability have increased considerably in recent years. This means that 3D printers are creating better parts with superior dimensional accuracy and surface finish.
In addition, material, platform and software solutions are enabling companies to overcome significant hurdles related to batch-to-batch and machine-to-machine repeatability. This makes it possible to radically reduce the time and cost associated with set-up and change-over which enhances the manufacturing system’s response to new inputs and market demands.
Moreover, I have seen organizations reduce or even eliminate the need for conventional tooling and fixtures, which enables them to significantly reduce typical maintenance, repair and scrap. The subsequent repeatability, consistency and quality advantages are invaluable competitive differentiators.
Additive manufacturing, combined with the intelligent digital supply chain, is helping virtual teams across the globe collaborate on new designs, compare actual physical representations of a product, save time from concept to prototype to pilot to production, and even move production closer to consumers. When we think about this in comparison to launching a product in the conventional manner — with its investment in tools, equipment, partnerships and time to release first articles — the benefits of additive manufacturing are compelling.
Similarly, the ability to change a product mix on short notice is a considerable benefit. According to the Wohlers report: “Every build on an additive manufacturing machine can be different, so parts can be made to order. Manufacturers are able to react more quickly to changing market conditions, and they can modify production rates to match demand.”
Additive manufacturing requires fewer materials and can reduce or eliminate the need for physical inventory. And as more and more factories implement additive platforms, this proliferation and subsequent added volume also are driving down material pricing models. Likewise, smarter designs lead to more efficient engineering; lighter weights; greener processes; and overall part performance improvements.
Wohlers report authors Tim Caffrey, Ian Campbell and Terry Wohlers add that another cost benefit comes from 3D printing’s ability to build highly complex parts with a single machine. “The economies of scale associated with large centralized factories with assembly lines are reduced. The distribution of all or part of manufacturing on a more regional or even local basis becomes economically feasible,” they write. “Replacement parts can be made at a number of distributed sites close to user markets. This reduces transportation costs and, if the parts are produced on-demand, inventory and warehousing costs as well.”
Plus, by converting to a more digital inventory, manufacturers can free up capital, which gives them more flexibility to develop new products, processes, and/or invest in other segments of their businesses. When fewer parts are held in inventory, users can cut the number of part bins on the shop floor and use less on-site storage.
Interestingly, Wohlers believes that the ability to design products with fewer, more complex parts is one of the most important benefits of 3D printing technologies. “Reducing the number of parts in an assembly immediately cuts the overhead associated with documentation, inspection, and production planning and control,” the report says. “Also, fewer parts result in less time and labor for assembling the product, again contributing to a reduction in overall manufacturing costs.”
If quality, speed and cost form the thorny triad, talent is undoubtedly the fourth piece of the puzzle. However, while the manufacturing field at large is facing a massive talent gap, additive manufacturing hasn’t run into a real skills shortage yet. We see many businesses drawing on adjacent areas of the organization — injection molding, design and the like — and educating employees quickly.
It has been abundantly important to bring manufacturing experts into the additive space to assist in maturing the use of the tool to meet stringent production requirements and has the added benefit to our team members of training on a technology poised to have great impact on the day of a factory worker.
I recently read a 3DPrint.com interview with MIT Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Hart, Ph.D. It was inspiring to see that additive manufacturing’s impending boom also is being fostered at countless universities, further supporting the belief that talent is out there and growing in its ability to support key areas of our digital transformation. In fact, the number of classes focused on 3D printing technologies, such as Hart’s “Additive Manufacturing: From 3D Printing to the Factory Floor,” has consistently been on the rise in the past five years.
In Hart’s case, he created the class in response to manufacturers’ continued interest in pursuing additive manufacturing for myriad applications, as well as the ongoing focus on 3D printing as a viable manufacturing process. “I thought that we could help by presenting a cutting-edge additive manufacturing course at MIT,” he told the news outlet.
As these key elements converge, additive manufacturing is revolutionizing the industry by enabling large-scale customization for certain application spaces. Many of our clients come to us wondering how fast that will happen.
Harvard Business Review’s D’Aveni asks that same question in his article “The 3D Printing Revolution.” He writes: “For a given business, here’s how fast it can happen: The U.S. hearing aid industry converted to 100 percent additive manufacturing in less than 500 days, according to one industry CEO, and not one company that stuck to traditional manufacturing methods survived.”
For sure, the technology is being maximized by manufacturers of everything from ear buds to eye glasses; surgical tools to prosthetic limbs; and armed forces equipment Maintenance, Repair and Obsolescence (MRO) right in the military theater. Users are experiencing newfound design freedom, reduced batch sizes, huge time savings, closer proximity to end users, significant performance gains and much more.
The footwear industry in particular is getting considerable attention. Much of its popularity is a result of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when sprinter Allyson Felix wore track and field shoes printed specifically for her foot size and running stride. Spectators around the world heard about how Felix, her coaches and a team of engineers designed the sneakers, which are much lighter and slimmer mainly because they eliminated nonessential features. 3D printing also made it possible to suit Felix’s specific body type and the unique contours of her feet. Perhaps most importantly, the technology enabled rapid prototypes and turnarounds when incorporating feedback and recommendations.
The future of manufacturing around applications that directly connect to consumers is tremendously exciting and warranting the level of attention it has received in the past few years. Much has been written about the Amazon affect which disrupted the retail space in pursuit of a more efficient and effective marketplace for consumers. As we look to the convergence of digital technologies including scanning, integrated information systems and additive manufacturing, it is obvious that manufacturers are following suit to improve the consumer experience from scan-to-receipt of products that will provide better performance when customized.
MIT’s Hart believes that, in as little as three years, additive will be making a significant impact on industry, and, as he told 3DPrint.com, “Most people will own at least one product that has a component made by additive manufacturing.”
Furthermore, the Wohlers Report states that additive manufacturing currently represents less than half of one percent of all manufacturing. Just imagine when additive manufacturing grows to capture even a mere five percent of that global market. “It would become a $640 billion industry,” the authors assert, adding that the expansion will come on several fronts, in the following order:
The report also emphasizes that the compound annual growth of the industry from 2013 to 2015 averaged 31.5 percent. “It is difficult to name an industry that is growing more strongly,” they add. I certainly can’t think of one.
Harvard Business Review’s D’Aveni agrees that 3D printing has reached a critical tipping point. “Most executives and many engineers don’t realize it, but this technology has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling, trinkets and toys,” he writes, adding that 3D printing manufacturing is “about to go mainstream in a big way.”
Such sweeping change and dynamic activity bring with them some key implications for today’s business leaders. “There’s so much activity going on, so much money and creativity now being applied,” D’Aaveni writes, probing, “What’s the risk if you wait?” Indeed, as new capabilities increase both the pace and power of 3D printing manufacturing, I am certain that successful companies will be the ones that choose to match this speed, rather than implementing the solution by degrees.
For those who are still having trouble believing that additive manufacturing is viable and applicable to what you do, let me say this:
I urge you to recognize this unique and very valuable opportunity to reconsider how your company describes and distinguishes itself.
Begin by looking to your customers. Understanding what they want and how those needs can best be fulfilled is essential. 3D printing solutions are fundamentally transforming prototyping, tooling, fixtures and production parts and business leaders who eagerly embrace these capabilities — and think additively in their designs, production and methodology — will be more flexible and better positioned to achieve a sustainable business.
Second, D’Aveni advises revisiting current operations. “As additive manufacturing creates myriad new options for how, when and where products and parts are fabricated, what network of supply chain assets and what mix of old and new processes will be optimal?” he asks.
Finally, it’s critical to investigate the strategic implications as entire marketplaces begin exploiting the technology. Manufacturing is a 150-year old business and by its very nature is loathe to change. However, digital manufacturing and its supporting technologies, such as additive, can't be ignored forever. If you need further proof, ask the recently dethroned kings of retail like Sears. They chose to ignore digital too.