Is 3D Printing the Future?

All over the media we are reading about how 3D printing is going to change the manufacturing industry completely. Is this fact a guarantee? The article “The Limits of 3D Printing” (https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-limits-of-3d-printing) give a converse view to this new technology. Per the article, “…the economics of 3D printing now and for the foreseeable future make it an unfeasible way to produce the vast majority of parts manufactured today”. Because of this assumption, the author proposes that we “…look to new areas where it can exploit its unique capabilities to complement traditional manufacturing processes”. Building off of this statement, the article also addresses the theory that with 3D printing, global supply chains will become a thing of the past by stating that “this vision does not stack up to economic reality”. One of the widely accepted benefits of 3D printing is that product customization is much easier. Despite this fact, the article states that “… 99% of all manufactured parts are standard and do not require customization”. Due to this fact, “… when customization isn’t important, 3D printing is not competitive”. How much of these ideas are fact? Is 3D printing the future, or just a complement we will utilize for customization? For now, only time will tell.

3D Printing for the Non-Industrial Consumer?

The article “3D printing and the Future of Manufacturing” (http://www.industryweek.com/emerging-technologies/3d-printing-and-future-manufacturing-infographic) is an infographic that breaches the norm of 3D printing discussions. Instead of talking about how 3D printing could influence the industrial manufacturing industry, this article focuses another potential user; the non-industrial consumer. As stated in the article “Today, almost anyone can become a manufacturer or contribute to the manufacturing process.” “If applied correctly, that point might be the biggest business opportunity presented by the technology to date.” The article displays ten major characteristics of 3D printing, three of which will be discussed today.

  1. The range of materials is exploding: 3D printing is no longer limited to plastics or the recently added metals, but can now be incorporated with ceramics, concrete, food, and other biological substances, among others. This opens the 3D printing market to virtually every business today.
  2. New major players: As stated above, almost anyone can become a manufacturer or contribute to the manufacturing process. The possibilities are endless.
  3. The consumer possibilities are also endless: 3D printing enables customization at no additional costs, giving a sustainable solution to the “thirst” of personalization.

These three main points, along with many other aspects and benefits of 3D printing, create the perfect storm for 3D printing to flourish. As the technology grows and improves, the impact of 3D printing will only continue to grow.

3D Printing; The New Future

The article “Why 3D Printing Could be a Manufacturing and Logistics Game Changer” (http://www.manufacturing.net/blog/2013/10/why-3d-printing-could-be-manufacturing-and-logistics-game-changer) reviews the capabilities revolutionary characteristics of 3D printing. The article highlights five main benefits of 3D printing:

  1. Three-dimensional printing increases production speed while reducing costs: For any company it’s beneficial to either increase production speed or reduce costs, but to be able to do both would change the industry completely.
  2. Consumer demand will have more influence over production: The possibilities of customization with 3D printing could “re-establish how manufacturers respond to customer demand. Manufacturing could become more consumer-based and responsive to the current market and its needs”.
  3. Instead of outsourcing, we could return to “near-sourcing” and U.S. production: With lower costs, outsourcing labor could become unnecessary. In contrast, manufacturing facilities “would be located closer to the consumer, allowing for a more flexible and responsive manufacturing process, as well as greater quality control”.
  4. The need for global transportation is significantly decreased: As discussed in #3, with manufacturing sites located locally, global transportation would become unnecessary, which again would help reduce costs even more.
  5. Logistics companies could offer more comprehensive, start-to-finish services: “With 3D printing technology in-house, logistics companies could take on more of a fourth-party logistics (4PL) approach instead of a third-party logistics (3PL) approach.

Before 3D printing can have a drastic effect on the manufacturing industry, it will need to be scaled up for mass and mainstream use. But as summarized above, the possible benefits of 3D printing are staggering.

GE’s Big 3D Printing Investment

The article “GE Bets Big on 3D Printing with $39M Additive Manufacturing Hub” (http://www.environmentalleader.com/2016/04/08/ge-bets-big-on-3d-printing-with-39m-additive-manufacturing-hub/ reviews GE’s “new era of manufacturing” and the focus they are putting into additive manufacturing. Per the article, GE has opened a $39M hub for additive manufacturing near Pittsburgh. This new endeavor was undertaken with the initiative to “drive innovation and implementation of additive manufacturing across the company”.  GE hopes to use this new additive manufacturing hub for application across all of GE’s business lines. Per the article, GE states that the facility “reflects the company’s belief that the intersection of technology and manufacturing – hardware and software – will change the way products are developed and serviced.

Why the focus on 3D printing? “3D printing increases efficiency and reduces waste, making it a valuable tool in efforts to make manufacturing more sustainable.” GE has already begun its intentions to adopt 3D printing capabilities by announcing a project in November with the Department of Energy that will use 3D printed turbines in a process that could make desalinated seawater 20 percent less costly to produce. With GE being a major player in the manufacturing industry, it will be interesting to see their utilization of 3D printing and how it will affect the industry as a whole.

Metal 3D Printing

Lean manufacturing is a topic every company in today’s market is considering. How do we reduce time and waste? As we become more lean, we expect to also reduce costs and increase revenues. 3D printing is one of the newer technological developments that is projected to have a big impact on lean marketing as explained in the article “Next-Level 3D Printing with Metal” (http://www.mbtmag.com/blog/2014/01/next-level-3d-printing-metal). But while most 3D printers we know are smaller, plastic using machines, there are consistent developments in the metal 3D printing industry that are poised to amplify additive manufacturing’s reach. Per the article, Michigan Technological University scientists have invented a 3D metal printer which is estimated to cost around $1,500, and have also posted the instruction to build and operate the software/firmware online. With these types of discoveries taking place, it is important to analyze the pro/con ratio.

What are the pros?

  1. More Opportunity for Improvement: With the printer’s plans being available online, anybody with the resources and skill can build their own 3D printer, and make their own unique innovations. This will also extend past Michigan Technological University’s machine design, but to the entire metal 3D printing industry.
  2. Levels the Playing Field for Smaller Businesses: Currently, most 3D printing is done by large commercial businesses. With the development of low-cost metal printing machines, metal 3D printing becomes more accessible to everyone.

What are the cons?

  1. More Safety Concerns: Simply stated, metal printers are more dangerous than plastic ones.
  2. Limited Applications Currently Available: Because metal 3D printing is so new, there have been very few “hand in the pot”. Innovation and change are limited due to the lack of development and use. This is obviously expected to change as metal 3D printing becomes more accessible and used.

With so much hype surrounding 3D printing, it is certain to extend into the metal 3D printing sector as well. With so many commercial applications available, it seems fairly certain 3D printers will help increase both smart and lean manufacturing in the near future.

Changing the Perception of Manufacturing

The article “See How 3D Printing In Manufacturing Could Help Close The Skills Gap”( https://thebossmagazine.com/3d-printing-manu-help-close-skills-gap/)  reviews the US’s current manufacturing industry decline, as well as 3D printing’s potential impact for growth. With the manufacturing industry in the US at a steady decline, and a “rate of lost manufacturing jobs between 2000-2010 exceeding that of the Great Depression”, there is obvious room for concern. Per the article, “China produces 80 percent of the world’s air conditioners, 70 percent of its mobile phones, and 60 percent of its shoes”. Perhaps more damaging than the hold China has on the manufacturing industry is the misconception that “manufacturing is a “dirty” industry” which has driven away the younger workforce.

The article goes over a few ways this perception is being changed. Schools are doing tours of local companies to show the technical expertise and skill required. The article states “Companies are automating like crazy because, as a society, we realized we had to work smarter, not harder. If young people show focus in the skills needed to operate these machines, there seems to be an unlimited opportunity for jobs.”

A key component of this new “perception” is 3D printing. It not only is more efficient than traditional manufacturing production chains, but is more appealing to the young workforce because of the expertise needed as well as the innovative ideas behind 3D printing and its future growth. In conclusion, “Advantages like low labor costs overseas or large established facilities matter less, and the type of technology being utilized in these smaller manufacturing houses means the industry can attract more talent”.

3D Printing: The Risks and Rewards

3D printing is an amazing new technology that inherently defines both the smart and lean manufacturing spaces. Many believe that it is the manufacturing process of the future. With so much hype surrounding 3D printing, the article “5 Ways 3D Printing Is Changing The Manufacturing Industry” (http://www.apriso.com/blog/2016/03/5-ways-3d-printing-is-changing-the-manufacturing-industry/) does an excellent portrayal of some of the benefits, as well as one of the biggest concerns, regarding 3D printing.

So what are some of the main benefits? The article goes into depth about four of the most useful possibilities:

  1. More Custom-Built Products
  2. New Design Possibilities
  3. Easy Replacement Parts
  4. More Recycled Materials

While all four of these are pretty self-explanatory, a brief explanation of each will be given for a general understanding of the concepts. Because 3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology, many complex designs that wouldn’t normally be a possibility are now a reality. 3D printing allows for structures to be created in one piece, and any necessary additional or replacement parts can be designed and printed easily. Additionally, because many 3D printers use plastic as the main printing material, recycled plastic can be utilized and integrated back into the community.

What is the main concern? Because the designs for any 3D printing production are made and stored digitally, there is a high risk of piracy. In fact, this trend has already begun. Companies utilizing or designing 3D blueprints will have to take caution in not only how they are copyrighted, but how they are stored and secured. Despite this risk, it appears that in the eyes of many companies the rewards outweigh the risks.