3D printing: manufacturing on demand
Additive layer manufacturing (ALM), also known as 3D printing, creates three-dimensional solid objects from digital blueprint files.¹ Objects are created by laying down successive layers of material, each of which is a thinly sliced horizontal cross section of the final object.
Until the mid-2000s, only soft plastic could be 3D printed and only for limited applications. Since then, the range of materials that can be used with 3D printers has expanded significantly, with applications across sectors as diverse as aerospace, automotive, electronics, health and education.² This new technique reduces complexity, enabling highly optimized, on-demand and customizable solutions at little additional cost per unit.³
Because this technology can help consumers and businesses print the object they desire somewhere close to their own location, it reduces the need for parts and goods to be shipped – with an obvious disruption to the logistics industry and value chains in other sectors. But considerable uncertainty about the implications and applications of 3D printing still remains, and there may be opportunities for logistics players that specialize in printing and delivering these products quickly and cheaply.⁴
Case study: Airbus – exploring innovative applications of 3D printing
Concluding that 3D printing could reduce manufacturing waste and lighten the final weight of its planes,⁵ Airbus Group uses 3D printers for tooling, prototyping and making parts for test flights and aircraft in commercial service.⁶ More than 1,000 parts of the A350 are now 3D-printed – more than on any other commercial aircraft. Airbus is also pushing forward on the regulation front, working with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to qualify 3D-printed titanium components.
Despite the uncertainty, International Data Corporation forecasts global revenues for the 3D printing market (including printers, materials, software and related services) to more than double from $15.9 billion in 2016 to $35.4 billion in 2020.⁷ More than half of those 2016 revenues (56%) will have come through the manufacturing industry. Through 2020, healthcare will remain the second biggest industry by revenue, with retail growing fast behind it.
Applications in industry
Mining and Metals
3D printing of non-metals could encourage material substitution and have an adverse impact on the industry, but metal 3D printing shows dramatic promise for metals companies and downstream consumers.
If it becomes more economical, efficient and scalable, there will be opportunities for mining and metals companies to use it in production and operations. For mining companies, 3D printing is an innovative way to source metal and plastic parts, offering quick access to a broad range of spare parts and machinery in remote and hostile locations.
Downstream, metals companies could leverage the emerging 3D printing market to sell new products, such as input materials for 3D printing (e.g. silver, titanium or steel powder), and devise new structures (e.g. hollow honeycomb structures with better strength-to-weight ratios).
As the technology improves and costs come down, mining and metals companies may consider selling raw products, either as supplies to 3D printing businesses or direct to enterprise customers and consumers. In this way, they could become integrated metals and 3D printing firms.
Chemistry and Advanced Materials
The plummeting cost and increasing capabilities of 3D printing help innovative and agile start-ups enter spaces traditionally dominated by incumbents. New players are gaining traction at the customer-facing end of the value chain, as 3D printing becomes a viable alternative for prototype design and – soon – large-scale series production. By fully integrating 3D-printing software, hardware and advanced materials and formulation capabilities, new entrants can provide customized services that offer more than just granulate and additives.
New players could thus set themselves up at the intersection of the sector and customer industries. Incumbents would still supply plastics and additives, but they could be pushed further away from the customer, losing value-added margins.
Case study: Carbon – reducing overheads and making service agreements easy
California-based start-up Carbon works at the intersection of hardware, software and molecular science. At the heart of its business is the 3D printer M1, which can create real production parts 25 to 100 times faster than other 3D printers. Its parts can achieve price parity with traditional manufacturing methods, with runs of up to 45,000 units. For customers such as Ford and Delphi, the subscription-pricing model reduces overheads in capital equipment purchases and the complexity of additional service agreements. Customers also retain the ability to upgrade as new products are released.⁸
3D printing can bring new flexibility to retail. Apart from raising the possibility of in-store product printing to satisfy customer expectations of ‘what I want, when and where I want it’, it enables product customization – from appearance and packaging to flavour and nutritional content. The capability to manufacture flexibly and at small scale also helps make at-home business models viable.
Because it can personalize devices and implants to individual anatomies – and drastically reduce the need to buy items in bulk – there are already numerous applications for 3D printing in healthcare: hearing aids, facial reconstruction, personal prosthetics, dental crowns and surgical implants among them. More sophisticated printers, improved regenerative medicine, refinements in computer-aided design software and regulatory approvals are advancing its use in other areas, including drug production. Approved by the FDA in August 2015, Aprecia’s epilepsy drug⁹ uses Zip Dose technology to create a more porous pill that is easier to swallow than a conventional tablet in higher doses.¹⁰
Unlocking value to society
ALM could have a significant environmental impact. Besides reducing waste by reducing the number of unsold products, and slashing transport emissions by moving production closer to the end user, it creates opportunities for manufacturing inputs that are biodegradable.¹¹ On average, ALM generates 5 to 10% waste material (which can be recycled and reused), instead of the 90 to 95% typical of machining techniques that create a part by cutting away a solid block of material, rather than building it up layer by layer.
However, research by Loughborough University has shown that 3D printers, when melting plastic with heat or lasers, can use 50 to 100 times more electricity than injection moulding to produce an item of the same weight.¹²
There are also legal and ethical implications to be addressed in areas including bioprinting, the 3D printing of guns, and licensing. Cost, too, remains a significant barrier to adoption: an industrial 3D printer can cost up to $1 million.¹³ Information and expertise are further inhibitors: “The economic case for adopting AM [additive manufacturing] technologies, however, is as yet poorly understood,” noted a 2015 report from Oxford University’s Said Business School.¹⁴
Case study: 3D Systems and Ekso Bionics – superannuating the wheelchair?
Spinal injury patients have started walking again thanks to the Ekso bionic suit. The result of a partnership between 3D Systems and Ekso Bionics, the exoskeleton provides robotic assistance to get people back on their feet. After a full body scan of the user, form-fitting parts are 3D-printed and integrated with the moving parts of the exoskeleton. In 2013, early adopter Amanda Boxtel told an audience for whom she modelled the technology, “This project represents the triumph of human creativity and technology. I am deeply grateful and thrilled.”¹⁵
From our DTI research, we have identified several technologies (3D printing, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, big data analytics and the cloud, the Internet of Things and connected devices, and robots and drones) that are having major impacts across the 13 industries analysed to date. This article is one of a series looking at how each of these technologies is transforming business and wider society.
1 The Economist, “Entering the jet age: Aircraft engines may soon be built one layer at a time”, 7 March 2015
2 3dprinting.com, “What is 3D printing?”, 2016.
3 Stratasys, “3D Printing, Now and Beyond,” 2015.
4 Manners-Bell, John and Ken Lyon, “The Implications of 3D Printing for the Global Logistics Industry”, Supply Chain 24/7, 23 January 2014
5 AirbusVoice, “How 3D Printing is Delivering Airplane Parts on Demand”, ForbesBrandVoice, 15 July 2014
6 Airbus Group, Factory of the Future, 2016.
7 IDC, Worldwide spending on 3D printing expected to surpass $35 billion in 2020, according to IDC [Press release], 11 August 2016.
8 Carbon3D, “About Carbon”, 2016, http://carbon3d.com/about.
9 Wainwright, Oliver, “The first 3D-printed pill opens up a world of downloadable medicine”, The Guardian, 5 August 2015
10 Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, “Our Story”, 2015
11 Accenture, Waste to Wealth, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
12 Gilpin, Lyndsey, “The dark side of 3D printing: 10 things to watch”, Tech Republic, 5 March 2014
13 The Economist, “A printed smile”, 28 April 2016
14 University of Oxford Said Business School, The economics of 3D printing: a total cost perspective, p15.
15 3D Systems, 3D Systems and Ekso Bionics help man and machine walk as one [Press release]