The Future of 3D Printing

3D Printing has become a hot topic over the last years, although it roots can be found already 30 years ago. Analysts say it will become a billion dollar industry in the near future. This blog investigates what is exactly new and what we can envision for the future. I start with an overview of 3D printing. Then I describe what companies exist and what can be printed. Afterwards, I will continue with an analysis of the impact on the manufacturing supply chain and differentiation from other supply chain management concepts. Finally, I conclude with a future vision.

What is it about?

As the name indicates, 3D Printing is about printing 3D (width, height, length) objects made out of solid material. It is also called additive manufacturing, because a 3D object is created by adding layers on top of each other. This layer structure can be digitally designed using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software or by using 3D models derived from real objects by using 3D scanners. Different materials can be used within the layers, but at the moment, they cannot be arbitrarily combined. Nevertheless, a wide range of objects have been created using 3D printing technology. At the moment, it is used mostly for design prototypes, but also implants. However, it is an open question if 3D printing is less costly than other types of manufacturing.

3D printing is a young market with only few existing companies and open source/crowdsourcing organizations. It may be an opportunity for 2D companies to leverage existing Intellectual Property to extend their business to new markets beyond the shrinking 2D printing market. However, new legal problems are likely to appear in these new markets.

Other business opportunities can be seen around the whole 3D printing lifecycle from mining of raw material via printing of 3D objects to recycling as well as reuse of 3D objects.

What companies exist?

There is not one big company offering 3D printers or printing services. We find several smaller ones, but among those the most popular ones are probably:

  • Stratasys
    • Services: They offer various consulting services to optimize the use of their technology in different domains. Furthermore, you can send them digital 3D models and let them print the 3D objects.
    • Products: Mostly printers for prototypes. There seems to be no mass production facility for end user products. Besides printers, they offer 3D production systems, which create stronger products, i.e. they are more stable. Additionally, they can utilize more material as input for the printing process.
  • 3D Systems

We observe that they offer services similar to the 2D printing industry. For instance on-demand printing. This is useful if you (1) do not have a 3D printer or (2) you need to print something using different materials or (3) if you run out of material for printing.

Other services seem to be more unique to the 3D printing industry, such as the market place for 3D models.

However, there have been also some open source/crowd sourcing initiatives for 3D printers or 3D objects. This includes also printers that can print themselves or print upgrades to their hardware. The popular open source printers by RepRap start from $500. There are also open source market places for 3D objects, such as Thingiverse.

What materials can be used?

In the beginning most 3D printers were able to print objects made out of plastic. This is still today mostly the case. This material is especially useful, because it is and can be used in a wide range of products.

Other materials include, but are not limited to:

  • Metal
  • Copper
  • Steel
  • Silver-filled polymers
  • Organic material

Obviously, the different materials require different printing technologies. Furthermore, organic material needs to be cultured after the printing process. Hence, it is currently debated in science and practice what should be labeled as 3D printing and what not. As far as I know, the aforementioned 3D printing companies are not able to print objects consisting of organic material.

What can be printed?

The limit is just the sky. However, you need to take into account what quality parameter you require. For example, what resolution you need and how stable the object should be. Another thing is that it is still tricky to print complex electronic parts or to assemble them afterwards into another complex object (e.g. a smartphone). Apparently, it is still less costly and has a better quality if you are using human labor. Nevertheless, it should not be expected that you will hit in the future just the print button and you can print your own Airbus A380. Complex objects need always be modular and parts of them may need to be replaced for maintenance reasons. This type of work may be done in the future by robots.

Examples of what can be printed and what has drawn attention in the press:

How does it impact the supply chain?

Until now I was just describing one part of the supply chain – the production process. However, in order to create new business opportunities, one must understand the whole supply chain, which is at the moment not as well understood as the production process. Generally one can distinguish the following phases (cf. also SCOR):

  • Sourcing: This probably the one process which is most similar to the existing sourcing processes.
  • Making: This will be done by the 3D printers. You may design the 3D objects using the tools and technologies mentioned in the beginning.
  • Delivering: Here, we may want to think about new business models. Should the customer print, for example, his new iPhone at home? Should there be a 3D printing shop that has all the material available and that is able to finance printers to make industry-grade products?
  • Recycling: This is somehow similar to the existing recycling processes. However, there needs to be a big incentive for customer and manufacturer to recycle. The open question is: Can we design components, such as smartphones, that can be printed for recycling? Do we need new technologies to separate again the end product into its source materials?
  • Upgrading: This is a new process and does not exist as such in the hardware industry, but it is well known in the software industry. The idea is that instead of throwing away or recycling your old hardware you just print an upgrade! This is already possible today with certain products (cf. RepRap). Imagine you have a smartphone, e.g. the Samsung Galaxy S2 and want to upgrade it to a new version, e.g. the Samsung Galaxy S3. What about instead of recycling it you go to your Samsung store and they print you the upgrade? Can we design systems that are able to do this? What are the limitations? How can we design for a managed evolution of systems?

Future Vision

Currently, I have not seen so many big 2D printing companies going into the 3D market. An exception is HP, which uses the technology from Stratasys. Some may think this an obvious step, because they could potentially reuse some of their intellectual property and it could help them to find new markets beside the struggling 2D printing market. However, also 3D printing is already more than 20 years old (cf. for example patents by Stratasys), it has not yet become as important as 2D printing (was). I think we need to develop new business models (cf. previous section) to make it more successful and alternative models less attractive (e.g. cheap human labor in developing countries).

Thinking further, we need also to consider threats to 3D printing. At the moment, it is mostly used for prototyping. I wonder if we could not just use Holographic technologies together with simulation. We would not even need to waste material and can quickly change the prototype. The demonstration capabilities may become similar to real 3D objects in the future. This could also mean higher productivity in comparison to 3D printing. Obviously, I won’t expect to fly in a holographic plane or drive a holographic car the next decades. Nevertheless, 3D printing has not been used for these use cases beyond prototyping, i.e. it has not yet proven useful for mass production.

From a more research point of view, we should investigate how we can design components that can be upgraded using 3D printing systems. For instance, how can we avoid to be constrained too much by the initial design of the system and still be flexible to allow upgrades that have commercial success in a few years? How can we manage the evolution of systems that are able to replicate? When do we need to make a decision to recycle the whole system and start from scratch again? We may find some answers in the software industry, but I do not think they will be sufficient.

Last, but not least, we need to consider societal challenges. Production may not be outsourced anymore to developing countries. We will see more demand for highly skilled people designing 3D objects. How do we handle scarce resources, if everybody can print anything he or she wants to have? Finally, as described above, there is the possibility for everyone to print weapons – even using today’s technology. Politicians, researchers and society itself need to find answers to deal with this.


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