With its continuing advancement, broad application of 3D printing by industrial manufacturers might not be far away. To unlock its value, however, industrial companies will first need to determine how it can fit into their business and technology landscape.
It is a prospect worth considering, given that 3D printing is an example of the growing investments in digital technologies that can add speed, precision and capacity to the production of complex products. This is particularly important because the increasing demand for tailored products and services will require greater agility and flexibility. The 3D printing industry, estimated to reach $17 billion by 2020, is part of a shift from traditional supply chains to digital supply networks designed to help manufacturers respond more quickly to demand.
Today, there is a focus among product manufacturers on enhancing the prototyping process through 3D printing applications with a view to establishing robust spare parts production in the next five years. This effort will help eliminate the risks and uncertain costs associated with warehousing products that are not in demand. And advancements will continue. Product postponement capabilities are expected to emerge within the next 10 years that will give industrial companies fingertip access to a wide range of parts created only as needed.
To prepare for adoption, industrial manufacturers should begin by identifying the most relevant opportunities where 3D printing could become a key digital technology booster for their enterprise. They also should analyze the opportunities identified using internal and external research, reinforce their viability based on strong business cases, share the vision throughout the organization, and develop a launch roadmap.
Five key areas will need to be developed to enable companies to take full advantage of the 3D printing opportunities they identify. These areas include:
- Agile design engineering. Industrial engineers will need to employ a flexible, multi-stage process using 3D printing software that can enable them to visualize, test, validate, customize and readily modify 3D printing products.
- Sourcing. They also should use the latest 3D printing technologies to maximize their ability to capitalize on new opportunities and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Establishing a manufacturing digital ecosystem that focuses on the digital attributes of 3D printing will help companies sustain a competitive edge. To reduce design costs, companies should fully exploit the pay-per-print process, as it moves design closer to prototyping, creates product concepts in less time at lower costs, and reduces the need for external, physical prototyping.
- Distribution. Developing a dynamic digital supply network is key. It should include material suppliers, intellectual property considerations, and a digital inventory management system for warehousing in-demand 3D digital product files and spare parts to support customization.
- 3D manufacturing. As demand for tailored products and services increases, integrating 3D manufacturing into the organization’s existing production processes could be essential to competing in the emerging industrial product market. The accelerated prototyping and additive manufacturing capabilities 3D printing provides also could help manufacturers reduce costs, save time and increase profitability.
- Sales and marketing. Specialized product demand will require that manufacturers develop an agile sales and marketing function that can anticipate and respond quickly to rapidly changing demand. Companies also will need to create customized tools for repair and enhancement of existing customization equipment.
An industrial future
Operating costs for 3D printing are declining, the technology is improving, and demand for customized products is growing. This signals that widespread industrial adoption of this technology is a real possibility. Industrial manufacturers that have not already begun considering integrating 3D printing into their manufacturing operations should do so, as its potential benefits could greatly contribute to their success in the industrial products market.