As prospects grow for 3D printing technology advancing into the business world, so does anticipation about how it might help product manufacturers increase their competitive capabilities. There is a shift to the digitalization of manufacturing with Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, to drive greater efficiencies and value through the engineering supply chain. This makes 3D printing very interesting in terms of its potential as a competitive tool, and will require that companies start thinking now about how best to apply it to their specific situations.
Though the platform technologies of 3D printing are more than 30 years old, 2012 was the first year in which 3D printers became inexpensive enough to be used by smaller businesses to craft physical objects, signaling that widespread industrial use of the technology might not be far away. Historically, 3D printing—or additive manufacturing, as it also is known—has been an additive process of slowly building a physical model out of a polymer material layer by layer. But today, hardware and software advances have enhanced 3D printer performance, enabling more accurate and precise prototyping through 3D software, and making it possible for multiple materials to be fused together in one print.
For manufacturers, this could have broad business implications and drive substantial cost savings in areas like product development, testing and production, while also improving supply chain performance. As product lifecycles shrink, driven by ever-increasing demand for new and customized products, 3D printing technologies that reach industrial-grade could be especially helpful in giving manufacturers the ability to not only reduce cost, but keep pace with accelerating demand. This trend also is resulting in a growing need for new capabilities in mass customization, on-demand production, and fresh strategies to extend support for the “long tail” for products or low-volume parts.
In this business environment, companies need to closely monitor the progress of 3D printing as a burgeoning technology that, in addition to serving as a powerful competitive tool, could create new business opportunities. Consider three scenarios of how matured 3D printing technologies might aid manufacturers in responding to increasing needs.
Mass customization. Many products in today’s market, ranging from doorknobs and prosthetic limbs to spare parts, require customization. But, unlike many items that are cheaper when made in large quantities, mass-producing specialized products could be cost-prohibitive if demand is not large enough to support production and inventory maintenance costs. Using 3D printing would address these issues, giving companies the ability to produce an infinite range of items and customizations with minimal retooling costs from the same platform.
On-demand production. Many product items exist that are standard, but obsolete, or that are in extremely low demand but necessary to maintain. For instance, a refrigerator that costs thousands of dollars can be rendered useless if a small plastic door stop breaks. For many such parts, the associated costs outweigh the benefits of keeping them in inventory. However, imagine that the parts catalog for such an item is entirely virtual, made up of sets of 3D files that can be printed on demand. Companies would only need to print and send the ordered parts to customers with no storage costs or shrinkage due to loss or inefficient sorting.
The long tail. To enhance manufacturers’ low-volume parts operation, 3D printing technology could give them an opportunity to shift toward sustainable product design practices, moving from designing for complete part replacement to designing for part component replacement. This also could result in new revenue streams. For example, a computer or tablet manufacturer could partner with a national retail chain to supply 3D printing and repair services that would not only extend a product’s lifetime, but also reduce electronic waste.
Though 3D printing is still an emerging technology, the rapid drop in costs means that industrial product manufacturers should consider exploring its potential manufacturing benefits today to be prepared to take advantage of them as part of a digital, high-performance tomorrow.
>> James Robbins, email@example.com, is automotive industry and industrial equipment industry North American managing director for Accenture (www.accenture.com). Sunny Webb, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an R&D manager with Accenture Technology Labs.