by Patrice Ruane and Kathy McCoy
What is 3D Printing?
How would you like to print your new pair of shoes at home??
(If you’re scratching your head and saying “huh,” just hang in the with us for a moment…)
What if automotive parts could be printed right in the plant where they’re needed?
If you’ve ever watched The Jetson’s or any StarTrek series (remember the replicators?) and thought wouldn’t it be cool if that technology really existed? Today, 3D printing is making some of that “science fiction” our new, daily reality.
3D printers are being used now to make everything from chocolates to airplane parts. Office supply stores now even carry home 3D printer models in the $300 to $1,000 range, making it possible for anyone to design and 3D print their creations.
3D printing is much more than a novelty technology, however; it has the ability to revolutionize the way manufacturers do business in the future.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of successively layering materials to build a three-dimensional object. One of the earliest uses of 3D printing was rapid prototyping, which began to be used in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Initially, the technology was only able to print in plastics and was still a costly and lengthy process, but in recent years it has progressed to the point where manufacturers can produce functional prototypes using multiple materials at once.
While rapid prototyping remains a key function of 3D printing in manufacturing, companies now also use 3D printers for:
- Rapid tooling: Creating tools and molds that previously were machined from larger blocks of steel or aluminum.
- Direct manufacturing: End-products that are produced entirely using CAD models and 3D printers without molds or machining.
How Are Companies Using 3D Printing Technology Today?
3D Printers Enable Made-to-Order Products
3D printing will be a game-changer for companies offering made-to-order products. An incredible range of products – from fun, decorative applications like custom chocolate creations to prosthetics that are both low-cost and customized to fit the recipient’s own body – can be customized and built using a 3D printer.
In 2015, a partnership between The Hershey Company and 3DS resulted in the CocoJet 3D printer, which allows users to print everything from custom cake decorations to figurines in chocolate. The CocoJet uses open-source patterns, so users can create and upload their own designs to the printer.
3D Printers Decrease the Cost to Build Plastic-Composite Parts
Custom prosthetics are a world away from desserts, but they benefit from the same 3D printing technology. The traditional prosthetic creation process is expensive, time-consuming and difficult to individualize, since modifications typically destroy the original molds. The design software used in 3D printers enables customization, and the technology significantly drops the price of each prosthetic.
In 2013, Mick Ebeling’s charity, Not Impossible, brought a 3D prosthetic printing lab to Sudan with “Project Daniel.” Their first project was to build a prosthetic arm for a 14-year-old who had lost both arms when his village was bombed. The “Project Daniel” team trained local doctors and volunteers on the printing process, and at the height of the project, the local team was printing one arm per week.
3D Printers Allow Creation of Highly Customized Parts and Tools
Just like doctors working in disaster-zone clinics, astronauts must be prepared to solve problems creatively, with limited available resources. 3D printing has already helped them expand their horizons. In 2014, NASA worked with Made in Space, Inc., to send a design file for a ratchet wrench to the International Space Station, where the tool was printed along with 19 other objects from files that had been pre-loaded prior to launch. NASA’s 3D printer project manager says that the technology opens up endless applications, and may even allow them to build components that they would not otherwise be able to launch into space.
Where Will 3D Printing Go Next?
3D printing can help companies develop localized production and manufacturing capabilities, which has enormous potential implications for the global supply chain. The adoption of 3D printing technology could allow businesses to “near-source” production and reduce or eliminate overseas manufacturing, which consequently impacts shipping, air/ground cargo transportation, etc.
As 3D printing enables increased product customization and made-to-order offerings, we may see changes such as:
- Decreased need for warehousing facilities and on-hand inventory, as well as shortened production cycle times.
- Reduced need for light assembly workers and/or warehouse workers.
- More localized and customized production strategies could change the traditional, siloed manufacturer/wholesaler/retailer relationship
- Increased ability for small businesses to produce, store and sell products directly to their customers.
For small-to-midsize businesses and companies specializing in custom products or smaller production runs, 3D printing can help reduce costs and reliance on outside partners (such as warehouses) while enabling greater customization in shorter production cycles. Larger businesses, like the automotive and aerospace companies that have already started using 3D printing to make car and airplane parts, could see significant changes in their business models.
How do you see your company using 3D printing?
About the Authors
Patrice Ruane is a professional writer with over 10 years of experience in business communication, including proposal writing. She is currently a Proposal Analyst with Blytheco, and holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a B.A. in English Literature.
Kathy McCoy, MBA, is the Demand Generation Manager at Blytheco. She has written on software and business management for more than 8 years and has more than 17 years of experience in continuing education.
Reprinted from the Summer 2016 issue of Bellwether.
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