3D printing, known as “additive manufacturing”, has been capturing the imagination of everyone from entrepreneurs to at-home hobbyists in recent years. Today, there is a growing surge in mainstream interest in 3D printing, with exciting new breakthroughs and applications being introduced periodically.
Among commercial industries, there is a growing hype and excitement that 3D printing can potentially revolutionize manufacturing, enabling companies to produce almost anything, layer by layer within the boundaries of a single 3D printer. Leading companies eager to be first-mover winners in a 3D printing future have begun to leverage this technology, demonstrating inspiring applications across a range of industries, from aviation to healthcare and even food production. By making big investments, some companies are already betting on the success of 3D printing for their businesses.
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While expectations and optimism for 3D printing continue to increase both in consumer and enterprise contexts, the key questions remain: Will 3D printing really disrupt global manufacturing? And will 3D printing make traditional manufacturing factories become obsolete?
The answers to these questions depend largely on changes in economics, new technological breakthroughs, and future levels of 3D printing adoption. At present, many leading industries and market analysts make promising growth predictions for 3D printing. The consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that the 3D printing market will grow to between $180 billion and $490 billion by 2025. In addition, enterprise 3D printing is ready to break out and achieve widespread adoption. Over the past five years, enterprise 3D printing has successfully moved from being a nascent technology to reaching the cusp of the plateau of productivity, signalling that mainstream adoption is starting to take off. In contrast, consumer 3D printing is still at the peak of inflated expectations and will require more time before it reaches mass adoption
This uptick in 3D printing investments and adoption can be attributed to the increasing number of companies beginning to realize the possibility for new 3D printing business models and services. With traditional manufacturing, materials are usually sourced and shipped from several locations to centralized factories that develop and assemble the final product.
A major benefit of 3D printing is the ability to produce a variety of products from a single 3D printer. This reduces the number of steps in the production chain, essentially enabling companies to leverage on-demand and decentralized production concepts. As a result, potentially significant economic savings can be made on logistics and production costs.
Companies can also find additional savings from the reduction of production waste as well as the increase of sustainable business practices through 3D printing. A study by Airbus showed that by redesigning its brackets for 3D printing, the company could achieve a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions over the lifecycle of the bracket and reduce the weight of the aeroplane by 10 kg. 3D printing also enabled a 25 percent reduction in material waste compared to traditional casting methods.
Taking these advantages into consideration, some calculations on the economics of 3D printing for everyday household items that require some customization – for example, a showerhead that needs to fit the size of the pipe or an iPad stand that needs to be designed to the model’s exact size. For these customized printed objects, the potential savings are anywhere between eight to 80 times an equivalent retail price.
Consumers and businesses can make substantial savings by 3D printing these objects themselves. This shows that leveraging 3D printing in the right product segments makes sense. It can especially provide great value where there is a high level of complexity and customization in the design and production of a product as well as where there is a need for smaller batch sizes. Therefore, it will be essential to understand where 3D printing will be advantageous compared to traditional manufacturing, thus maximising supply chain strategies in the future.
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