If you haven’t heard of 3D printing, the old adage “Where have you been, living under a rock?” may be appropriate. But if you do need further explanation, 3D printing quite simply is the ability to make parts, appliances, and tools in a wide variety of materials from a single source (most notably from a printer).
3D printing could effectively be called a classic disruptive innovation according to the disruption pattern identified by Harvard Business School Partner Clayton Christensen. Why? Because 3D printing technology disrupts an existing market and value network and displaces an earlier technology. Sort of like what PDFs and email did to fax machines.
As promising as 3D printers seem, their usefulness is still questionable. High costs, safety concerns, patents, and design complexity are all contributing to legitimate skepticism. However, it has paved the path for new technological advancements. For example, doctors are using the technology to build 3D printed windpipes for babies with undeveloped tracheas and prosthetics limbs for those with missing arms or legs. From complex mechanisms and transistors to LEDs and more, the applications are only limited by the imagination. Not only can 3D printers handle materials ranging from human cartilage to titanium, engineers are also using it to test new designs in automobiles, packaging, and even in building construction. And the economic implications of 3D printing are more significant: McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that it could have an impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025.
Who would have thought such a disruptive innovation would’ve had such a huge impact on modern manufacturing? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing has always been equivocal to factories, machine tools, production lines, and economies of scale. Now 3D printing has turned that model on its head.
The advantages of 3D printing are already making profound changes in the way many things are designed, developed, produced, and supported. Here are five 3D printing disruptions excerpted from McKinsey Quarterly that C-level executives should begin preparing for:
1. Accelerated product-development cycles
Initially, the idea of 3D printing was to reduce time in product development. This was a significant key benefit for manufacturers. But as the technology continues to make advances in printer resolution, higher-definition coloration, and the broader use of materials (such as elastomers) it is soon possible for companies to make their finished product from 3D printing.
2. New manufacturing strategies and footprints
As of 2011, only about 25 percent of the additive-manufacturing market involved the direct manufacture of end products. However, with a 60 percent annual growth rate, that is the industry’s fastest-growing segment. As costs continue to fall and the capabilities of 3D printers increase, the range of parts that can be economically manufactured using additive techniques will broaden dramatically. Boeing, for example, already uses printers to make some 200 part numbers for ten different types of aircrafts. Also, medical-products companies are using them to create offerings such as hip replacements.
3. Shifting sources of profit
Additive-manufacturing technologies could alter the way companies add value to their products and services. The outsourcing of conventional manufacturing helped spur companies such as Nike to rely more on their design skills. Likewise, 3D printing techniques could reduce the cost and complexity of other kinds of production and force companies to differentiate their products in other ways. These could include everything from making products more easily reparable (and thus longer lived) to creating personalized designs.
4. New capabilities
Design is inherently linked to methods of fabrication. Architects can’t design houses without considering construction techniques. Engineers can’t design machines without considering the benefits and limitations of casting, forging, milling, turning, and welding. While there is a wealth of knowledge around design for manufacturing, much less is available on design for printing. Our conversations with executives at manufacturing companies suggest that many are aware of this gap and scrambling to catalog their design know-how.
5. Disruptive competitors
Many benefits of 3D printing could cut the cost of market entry for new players; for example, the use of the technology to lower tooling costs makes it cheaper to begin manufacturing, even at low volumes, or to serve niche segments. The direct manufacturing of end products greatly simplifies and reduces the work of a designer who would only have to take products from the computer screen to commercial viability. New businesses are already popping up to offer highly customized or collaboratively designed products. Others act as platforms for the manufacture and distribution of products designed and sold online by their customers. These businesses are gaining insights into consumer tastes and building relationships that established companies could struggle to match.
HP has already experimented with augmented reality and 3D image manipulation in recent products, and it intends to bring some of those technologies to smart devices such as tablets and laptops for a more interactive computing experience. Their new 3D printing technology called Multi Jet Fusion will enable mass production of parts with a technology traditionally reserved for rapid prototyping. Their new industrial 3D printer, about the size of a washing machine, is 10 times faster and 50% less expensive than current systems on the market. The printer can also use a myriad of colors and materials.