Exponential Technologies: The Just-Around-the-Corner Potential of 3D Printing

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This is our last post on exponential technologies (see part 1part 2 , part 3, part 4 and part 5).

The first industrial revolution came with the increasing use of the steam engine and hand production methods gave way to  machines and assembly lines. The second industrial revolution came with the use of mass production, wherein you can make anything inexpensively as long as you make a million units of it.

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The third industrial revolution is happening now, with digital manufacturing, wherein a new product design does not require a new factory to be made.

So What is 3D printing?

Think of an inkjet printer, these machines convert what’s in your computer (digital instructions) into printed text (two-dimensional object). A 3D printer does the same thing, but it adds a vertical dimension, permitting the creation of three-dimensional objects.


Local Motors’ Strati, the first 3D-printed car at Autodesk University 2014. Photo: Jeff Yoders

Think about what has happened since we invented the inkjet printer, only about 60 years ago. Instead of handwriting/typing a book page by page, we can now design the whole product (a book) digitally and manufacture it (print it) in minutes. And an ever bigger change occurred as we had access to the internet and inkjet printers became exponentially cheaper. Now, in the 21st century, you can design (or download) any 2D product (text, images) and manufacture it (print it) in your own house, without the need of a factory.

We will see the same evolution with 3D printing, an exponential technology beginning to disrupt a portion of the $10 trillion global manufacturing industry.

In the near future, each of us will have a 3D printer at home. Let’s say you want to buy a new chair, you won’t have to go to a store and buy it, not even buy it on amazon and get it shipped to your house. You will just go online and download the digital design, totally customizable to perfectly fit your house’s needs, then make (print) the chair yourself.

For a more specialized item, like a car, you will go to a 3-D printing service provider to make it and ship it to you, just like you go to an ink provider when you want to print things like banners, calendars, business cards etc.  Take a look for example at shapeways, the company has set up a 3-D printing marketplace, turning people’s designs into realities and also offering instant route to market.

How to 3D Print

These days, there are many different types of 3D printers in the market, from smaller than a pigeon to as big enough to print a house. These machines can print over a hundred different materials ranging from nylons and plastics all the way to biological materials to make living tissues and eventually whole organs.

On a large scale, the presence of 3D printing is already felt in industries such as transportation. Most cars and airplanes today include 3D printed parts. Less than a year ago, Local Motors Inc. printed an entire car on site in a day at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.

In medical devices, the advances are even more critical. Thanks to its mass customization capability, with 3D printing we can easily make products that perfectly match an individual’s body shape, like bone implants or teeth.

Even more impressive might be what 3D printing does in the aerospace industry. Some experts in the fields are dreaming of the idea of colonizing planets by sending nothing but a 3D printer and some mining equipment. That’s been the focus for a Silicon Valley venture called Made In Space, which builds the machines destined for the space station.

How Does This Affect Procurement/Supply Chains?

Any industry where the end product can be customized is vulnerable. We are moving to a world of one-stop manufacturing. 3-D printing eliminates wasted resources, warehousing and tooling costs, providing mass customization and the capability of making more complex components that are lighter and stronger. All the while, 3D printing provides environmental efficiency.

3D printing will significantly reduce the number of employees needed in a factory. A more sustainable and flexible factory is on the horizon. These are called microfactories, that will drastically change how we produce large consumer goods for unique local needs. Located near urban centers, critically reducing distribution costs and waste while speeding delivery and time to market.

Industrial buyers will have to worry, if anything, about buying “ink.”

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