3D Printing Is Altering Global Manufacturing

Technology and automation has brought manufacturing a long way. One of the latest innovations, 3D printing, could make a significant mark of global proportions. Will your firm be at the forefront of this technology or be left in the dust?

The Basics

The process of 3D printing, sometimes known as "additive manufacturing," involves producing three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The basic concept was invented by Chuck Hull in 1986. There are several 3D processes, but what they have in common is that they rely on layer-by-layer fabrication guided by computer code that's directed to the printer.

The latest strides in 3D printing enable manufacturers to significantly cut production steps and the number of workers needed to complete a project. Rather than using several people at various stages of assembly, the division of work boils down to the designer, the suppliers of raw materials and the 3D printer, a.k.a. the "manufacturer."

These streamlined manufacturing processes could have lasting ramifications for the global supply chain, possibly reducing capital, warehousing and logistical needs. Ultimately, the changes could affect the economies of countries that plan to create jobs and invest in logistics and warehousing.

But how far can the effects of 3D printing extend?

The Global Outlook

3D printer making a cog wheel

In some circles, the advent of 3D printing has been compared to the Industrial Revolution. Although that might be hyperbole, some people compare 3D technology to Henry Ford's process innovations more than 100 years ago.

At its core, the Ford assembly line exemplified economy of scale. It was based on the premise that producing large quantities of a specific product provides a lower cost per unit. It didn't need workers with specialized training, only those who could make repetitive steps in sequence on partially finished cars as the units moved from workstation to workstation. Standardizing parts and improving assembly line efficiency translated into bigger profits and more jobs.

As the concept evolved and took hold overseas, consumption grew and supply chain networks expanded. After World War II, growth spurted in Japan and Germany. This was followed by other economies, notably Southeast Asia, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Eventually, China joined the trend.

That success prompted some countries to boost manufacturing output. In 2014, India launched its Make in India program, making it a top global destination for foreign direct investment. But 3D printing could throw a monkey wrench into the mix.

A 3D Revolution

3D printing improves on the assembly line by further simplifying the processes. It reduces the number of parts, components, steps and costs. Because 3D printing needs less space than traditional manufacturing, there are additional cost savings from reduced needs for warehousing and transportation, which in some cases aren't required at all. In addition, 3D designs can be quickly revised, even at late stages.

In a nutshell, a product that would need a month to go through three or four design changes in the prototyping phase now takes a week when 3D printing is used. Products that use this technology get to market faster, and 3D manufacturers can save significant time and money.

Consider Ford: The automaker uses 3D printing to quickly produce prototype parts, shaving months off the development time for individual components, such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents, that are used in all of its vehicles.

With traditional methods, an engineer would create a computer model of an intake manifold — the most complicated engine part — and wait about four months for one prototype at an estimated cost of roughly $500,000. With 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in four days, including multiple iterations and with no tooling limits, at a cost of $3,000.

With 3D technology, engineers are no longer bound by the constraints of the old industrial process, allowing them to explore dozens of variations and rigorously test them to fine-tune engine performance.

This creates economies of scale and shortens the global supply chain. Producing and shipping goods across long distances is inefficient. So much so that UPS is investing heavily in 3D printing centers across the United States that can produce items ranging from robotic arms to custom figurines for local delivery.

Among the potential implications of this revolution are:

1. Widespread economies of scale. Reduced fixed costs affect per unit production costs, thereby transforming global supply chains.

2. Reassessment of zoning policies. Because 3D printing will reduce the need for large-area manufacturing plants, more small-scale facilities could be developed. As a result, the lines between industrial zones and non-industrial zones could become blurred and force governments to reconsider zoning laws and future plans for manufacturing plants.

3. Redistribution of domestic and foreign jobs. China and other countries known for using inexpensive labor may lose jobs to 3D printing.

The reach of 3D printing will likely extend well beyond the manufacturing sector. Consider the potential impact on:

In the coming years, economic and financial ripples will be felt around the world, all tracing back to the 3D printing revolution. Now's the time to consider ways to position your business for these coming changes and challenges.

Challenges Faced in 3D Printing

Although the benefits of 3D printing are clearly evident, don't think that the changes come without challenges. Some of the potential drawbacks are:

It's likely that these obstacles can be overcome in time, but a seamless transition can't be assumed. Expect some bumps along the way.

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