3D Printing: Technology of the Future Arrives
3D printing has been considered the manufacturing technology of the future as far back as the 1980s.1 The technology’s popularity was initially championed by hobbyists and in university labs. More recently, 3D printing has become the norm rather than the exception in a growing number of industries, including aviation, automotive, electricity generation, and the medical and dental fields. However, additive manufacturing — another term for 3D printing — is still perceived by much of the business world as a technology that will revolutionize manufacturing one day, just not yet.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is allowing the 3D printing industry to prove its value and show that the future might finally be here. With demand for medical gear outstripping production, 3D printing has bridged gaps in a broken supply chain. The technology has been used to create face masks, ventilator parts, nasal testing swabs, and other needed equipment that was suddenly unavailable.2 Industry leaders were already aware of 3D-printing capabilities, but never has it been showcased so effectively to a global audience.
Even before its performance in this crisis, the industry was projected to grow by a compound annual growth rate of 26% between 2020 and 2024, according to Statista.3 The role 3D printing plays in this crisis could further alter the technology’s trajectory, showcasing its flexibility and capabilities to the broader public as well as corporate decision-makers. After decades of promise, 3D printing is poised to become the broader corporate mainstay that’s long been predicted.4
When the pandemic quickly spread across the world, governments reached out to industry to help. Tech companies volunteered to create contact tracing apps and analytics tools.5 Perfume-makers and distilleries produced hand sanitizer. And the 3D-printing industry rushed to the front lines where there were shortages of medical equipment.
Chiari Hospital in Brescia, Italy, was crowded with 250 COVID-19 patients and soon ran out of the valves needed for its ventilators.6 Each valve was designed to last just eight hours, and the supplier was unable to restock the hospital. At the Italian research institute Isinnova, the CEO and an engineer created a prototype in three hours and teamed up with a local 3D-printing company to make valves for the hospital.
At the University of Nottingham in England, engineers designed 3D-printed face shields and delivered 5,000 of them to local health care workers. Automaker Ferrari printed respirator valves, and Nissan produced face shields. Worldwide, 3D-printing companies, universities, governments, and industry groups created networks to solve shortages created by the coronavirus pandemic.
The fast-paced efforts were allowed to skip lengthy regulatory processes in most cases. As a result, they were able to produce effective parts in hours rather than weeks or months, a wakeup call for medical supply manufacturers.
As long as 3D printers have been available, companies saw this as a tool to quickly create prototypes before sending the products into a traditional manufacturing process. That made 3D printing a known quantity in corporate research and development departments, but not necessarily in manufacturing units.
French cosmetics giant L’Oréal was one of the early corporate champions of 3D printing. The company bought its first 3D printer in 1993, and has used it to create mockups, packaging models, and even assembly line replacement parts.7 In 2017, L’Oréal created 14,000 prototypes using 3D printers.
Prototyping has been a valuable use, but it’s not all 3D printing has to offer. The technology has untapped ability to change how companies design some products, build supply chains, and manufacture their goods.
Previously, cost and technical limitations have held back widespread adoption. 3D printing sometimes failed to match traditional manufacturing in the cost and the variety of materials used. For example, using additive manufacturing to make heat exchangers or turbine engine vanes may cost 10 to 30 times more than casting them. And that doesn’t include the additional design and validation costs.
In the past four or five years, many of these limitations have started to dissolve as the technology has matured. Meanwhile, industries have found more areas where 3D printing can reduce costs, or more importantly, add significant value to their products.
A growing number of machines can 3D print a variety of metals and specialty alloys, which allows engineers to maximize the trade-offs in terms of weight, strength, temperature resistance, and cost. For example, aluminum and titanium are popular for aerospace structural parts while nickel alloys are used for hot engine components. That flexibility makes 3D printing a core manufacturing technology in some industries.
A great example is the aerospace industry, which demands lightweight, high-quality parts. Aerospace manufacturers were quick to embrace 3D printing for thousands of different parts, including air ducts, wall panels, and more recently, engine components.8
Even with all these advances, the variety of raw materials is not unlimited; not all metals are suited for 3D printing. Some nickel alloys are easy to print while others are not. For example, the high-performance nickel-based MAR-M-247 is prized in the aerospace industry but can’t be 3D printed now with the desired quality.
The goal for 3D printing is to have a choice of materials as broad as those used in other manufacturing processes. 3D-printing companies have an important role in those advances. But so do materials scientists worldwide who are pushing 3D printing’s boundaries into new areas, such as nanomaterials.
Almost every business can find a use for 3D printers, but many cannot afford them. In other cases, conventional manufacturing systems were significantly cheaper.
However, 3D-printing industry trends have been predictable: It has enjoyed steady declines in the price of machines and steady increases in sales. Throughout its evolution, new technologies were introduced and then refined to make printing cheaper, faster, and more versatile.
Industrial machines now use lasers, heated nozzles, electron beams, or plasma arcs to mold plastic or metal. Each process provides a different set of benefits and drawbacks in cost, speed, and quality. And each provides fertile ground for innovation, particularly as new materials are introduced.
Businesses can buy 3D printers for as little as a few thousand dollars. Earlier metal 3D-printing machines cost nearly $900,000. Now, companies can find metal printers for $120,000. Advances at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, known for its 3D-printing innovations, allowed researchers to lower the final cost of carbon-reinforced polymer printing from $1,000 per pound to $20 per pound.9
3D printing is following the predictable path of other technologies, such as home computers: The equipment is getting more powerful, flexible, and cheaper. And as more printers are produced, the prices will continue to come down as economies of scale take hold.
In addition, businesses are also taking a more long-term view of costs. Components need to be evaluated by their overall life cycle cost, from birth to retirement, rather than only their manufacturing costs. The weight of components can be reduced substantially through 3D printing, which reduces operational and maintenance costs. A higher manufacturing cost upfront could be more than offset by future savings. These factors make 3D-printing technology competitive and push it further into the corporate mainstream.
Creating tools and small replacement parts has generally been easy work for 3D printers. But some have discounted the technology because of its inability to print larger items. That’s another area where additive manufacturing has advanced.
In 2016, Oak Ridge National Laboratory set a world record for the largest solid 3D-printed object.10 The “trim and drill” tool was created for Boeing to use to build aircraft wings. The 1,650-pound tool was 17.5 feet long and 5.5 feet wide. The lab also used 3D printers to create vehicles and even a house, although obviously they weren’t produced as single pieces.
Other printers now can create objects that are 40 feet long.11 Large-scale 3D printing can perform work that once required injection molding, casting, or forging.
Although 3D-printing technology has rapidly advanced, there are still barriers to overcome in some industries. Technological, financial, and labor limitations can slow the adoption of additive manufacturing. Some of those include:
- Skills gaps — Most companies don’t have workers with the end-to-end knowledge needed to design, engineer, and manufacture products using this technology. New hiring and reskilling are often required.
- Cost — Even if 3D printing is competitive with another manufacturing process, it can still cost much more to design and engineer the product.
- Regulation and qualification — The additional time and cost of certifying and qualifying a new part or process can make 3D printing less competitive in some cases. These facets of the process can create barriers in the aerospace and medical devices industries.
- Materials characterization — For products made with traditional manufacturing processes, the material properties, such as strength and fatigue, are well-defined. However, there is a degree of uncertainty with some 3D-printed objects caused in part by the anisotropy resulting from the layer-by-layer buildup.
- Production volume — For some high-volume items, 3D printing can’t keep up with traditional manufacturing. That continues to be a major barrier, particularly in the automotive industry and other high-volume sectors.
Like most technologies, there is not a one-size-fits all approach. Just because an object can be 3D printed doesn’t mean it should. The value accrues when the cost and benefits are aligned with the company’s strategies and goals.
3D printing’s future
The $11 billion 3D-printing industry is now caught between being a niche and a mature technology in some industries.12 The popular misconception is that it’s for experimentation rather than production, and for small-scale fabrication rather than industrial-scale manufacturing. 3D printing won’t live up to its high expectations until companies advance past the traditional usage.
There is still an incorrect assumption that 3D printing is useful mainly for parts that are either not frequently used, not commonly available, or even discontinued.
Survey results released by 3D-printer manufacturer Essentium in early 2019 found that the technology was mostly used for small-scale projects. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed said their largest production runs were in the hundreds or less, according to 3Dnatives.com.13 However, a follow-up study late last year found substantial increases in the scale of 3D printing; nearly half of the respondents were creating print runs in the thousands.14
In some cases, companies look to 3D printing for on-demand manufacturing. The ultimate example of this use is found on the International Space Station. NASA has been using a 3D printer there since 2016 to create its own machine shop in space.15 If a tool breaks — which has happened previously — astronauts could print a replacement in as little as 15 minutes, rather than waiting months for the next shuttle to bring one.
The value there is obvious. However, 3D printing will become transformative when companies more thoroughly integrate the technology into their manufacturing process.
At its core, 3D printing is a manufacturing process. That means companies can build their products in a different way, but that’s not always where its entire value lies.
The unique nature of 3D printing lends itself to creating new designs, rather than substituting existing ones. Organizations will find far more value in this technology when they produce their items from scratch with 3D printing in mind. The technology can make products that are smaller, stronger, or cheaper — all because of design innovations. Frequently, these advances result from the ways that design thinking interacts with a fundamentally different process.
A new product is often realized through a structured design-thinking process that considers desirability, feasibility, and viability. Often, the feasibility stage is where the product is altered, sacrificing some desirability and viability aspects. Limitations force conventional manufacturing to modify designs even though it results in more weight, cost, and complexity. Conventional manufacturing is a top-down process where a component is created or machined from larger pieces. 3D printing operates from the ground up, where material is added in tiny layers to create complex parts and more efficiently utilize the raw material.
Volkswagen-owned Bugatti, maker of supercars often priced in the seven figures, used 3D printing to construct titanium brake calipers for its new vehicles.16 In the 45-hour process, lasers melt titanium powder to create 2,213 layers of metal. Even though titanium is heavier than Bugatti’s traditional material of choice (aluminum), the caliper is 40% lighter due to the new design. A Bugatti executive said 3D printing was the only option for this new design.
Another example comes from GE Aviation, which was trying to redesign its jet engine fuel nozzles. The walnut-sized part has 14 internal fluid passages needed to mix the fuel and air. The design was good, but the manufacturing processes weren’t up to the challenge.
“We tried to cast it eight times, and we failed every time,” said Mohammad Ehteshami, then-head of engineering at GE Aviation.17
Instead of welding together 20 pieces, a modified off-the-shelf 3D printer was able to create the new nozzle using 3,000 layers of powdered metal. The result was 25% lighter, five times more durable, and 30% cheaper. The success forced GE Aviation to create a new manufacturing plant in Alabama to print the nozzles, about 600 per week.18
Often, the benefits of 3D printing aren’t calculated in the manufacturing costs. They are generated in downstream value, such as more-efficient power-generation components that can save millions of dollars in fuel costs and reduce emissions.
Scott Strazik, CEO of GE Gas Power, said 3D printing allowed his company to design turbines that could save its users up to $2 million per year in fuel and add another $3 million annually in new power generation capacity.19
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, organizations already realized that 3D printing could make supply chains more compact. The crisis has now exposed critical weaknesses in those global networks and gives executives an opportunity to reimagine their supply chains.
The conventional way to mitigate risk has been to spread out the supply chain worldwide, which usually reduces costs. That approach generally worked well until early this year after the coronavirus spread throughout China, the world’s largest manufacturer. Factories there and in other hard-hit areas closed temporarily and snapped import trade links. Often executives didn’t have visibility into their supply chains and were unaware of their vulnerabilities.
Its large workforce and lower pay allowed China to disrupt the manufacturing sectors in much of the world. The consumer electronics shift to China made sense because low-cost labor was needed to assemble 200 or so parts in a sequence. 3D printing could allow some companies and countries to create their own disruption and bring back manufacturing with less labor and capital investment.
The pandemic won’t reverse globalization. However, more organizations are searching for local suppliers and seeking to boost local capacity near their primary markets. Businesses need to closely examine the most critical parts of their operations and create contingencies in case there are disruptions, either locally or globally.
Businesses could set up 3D-printing facilities near major population hubs, rather than shipping merchandise from manufacturing centers across the world. Items can be made when ordered and still arrive quickly, as consumers have come to expect.
3D-printing company Carbon and sportswear multinational adidas teamed up on the 3D-printed Futurecraft 4D shoes. Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke told TechCrunch, “Ideally, the vision is to build and print on demand. Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue … Instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in New Jersey, we can have a micro-factory.”20
Often 3D printing can make a single object cheaper. However, the greater benefits are unlocked when the technology is a core element of the supply chain.
The efficiency, creativity, and versatility of 3D printing is attracting new industries. Each advance — either in printer technology or new materials — opens a door.
CB Insights assembled a list of 35 industries that have the potential to be disrupted by 3D printing.21 Those include:
- Architecture and construction — 3D-printed buildings are rare, but maybe not for much longer. Officials in Dubai have said that a quarter of its new buildings could be constructed with 3D printers by 2025.
- Pharmaceuticals — Drug-makers can customize pills for a group of patients or even an individual. And engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a 3D-printing method for manufacturing drug-carrying particles that can release at different times.22
- Consumer electronics — Companies are already using 3D printing for antennas, sensors, and other small components. Still, there is room to expand into the 3D printing of circuit boards and even entire devices.
- Transportation — Silicon Valley startup Proterra is using 3D-printed parts in its electric buses. Since the orders are still small, 3D printing has allowed the company to reduce the manufacturing cost of parts by at least 90% and speed up time to market.23
Upending the system
Calculating the value of 3D printing is complex. Businesses must consider the prices of equipment, materials, speed of production, and other measurable factors. Beyond that, companies need to predict the changing costs of the technology and expanding selection of materials.
There are sunk costs in traditional machinery and risks in upending a system that is working, at least for now. And there is the unknowable lost value of innovations that could have been discovered through 3D printing.
Many businesses will hesitate to disrupt their current supply chains or undercut their existing processes. That’s a tricky line to walk in many industries, until an emergency arrives and there are no other options.
This current crisis is forcing much of the world, from individuals to the largest corporations, to act and react differently. The old ways are no longer effective. New solutions are needed that can provide efficiency and flexibility, and facilitate innovation. No single technology can meet everyone’s needs. However, many organizations will take a closer look at 3D printing and discover a versatile tool well suited to a rapidly evolving and unpredictable landscape.
Rafi Billurcu, a partner at Infosys Consulting, and Rahul Chalisgaonkar, a principal in the supply chain practice at Infosys Consulting, contributed their expertise to this report.
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103D printed tool for building aircraft achieves Guinness World Records title, Vlastimil Kunc, Brian K. Post, Lonnie J. Love, et al., Aug. 29, 2016, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
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14Industrial scale 3D printing will experience tremendous growth in 2020, Carlota V., Dec. 4, 2019, 3Dnatives.com.
153-D Printer Could Turn Space Station into ‘Machine Shop,’ Jessica Eagan, Sept. 2, 2014, NASA.
16World premiere: brake caliper from 3-D printer, Jan. 22, 2018, Bugatti.
17Transformation In 3D: How A Walnut-Sized Part Changed The Way GE Aviation Builds Jet Engines, Amy Kover, Nov. 19, 2018, GE.
18The Devil Is In The Details: How GE Found A Way To Bring 3D Printing To Mass Production, Tomas Kellner, Oct. 3, 2018, GE.
19The Power of Additive Manufacturing, Scott Strazik, June 14, 2018, GE via LinkedIn.
20How Adidas and Carbon are changing the sneaker supply chain, Romain Dillet, Sept. 7, 2018, TechCrunch.
22One vaccine injection could carry many doses, Sept. 14, 2017, Anne Trafton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.