3D printing and the future of manufacturing

Who would have thought that modern manufacturing could be done without a factory? Since the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing has been synonymous with factories, machine tools, production lines and economies of scale. So it is startling to think about manufacturing without tooling, assembly lines or supply chains. However, this is exactly what is happening as 3D printing reaches individuals, small businesses and corporate departments.

3D printing and the future of manufacturing

Today you can make parts, appliances and tools in a wide variety of materials right from your home or workplace. Using a computer, simply create, modify or download a digital 3D model of an object. Click “print,” just as you would for a document, and watch your physical 3D object take shape. No longer the stuff of science fiction, 3D printing is a new reality.

While this new reality is exciting, it also poses significant questions for the future of how we manufacture goods. Factories will not disappear, but the face of the manufacturing industry will change as new entrants, new products and new materials emerge, and mainstay processes like distribution may no longer be needed. Today’s consumers clamor for customized products and services and for speed of delivery. Yet customization and immediacy — right here, right now — are not economical with traditional manufacturing processes, which are optimized for large volumes of consistent output in a factory far away. 3D printing changes the calculus of manufacturing by optimizing for batches of one.

3D printers are being used to economically create custom, improved and sometimes even impossible-to-manufacture products right where they will be used. A single printer can produce a vast range of products, sometimes already assembled. It’s a factory without a factory floor and it has created a platform for innovation, enabling manufacturing to flourish in uncommon areas and spawning a new generation of doit- yourself (DIY) manufacturers. The new players, with their innovative processes and technology, will disrupt manufacturing as we know it. The Economist calls 3D printing the third Industrial Revolution, following mechanization in the 19th century and assembly-line mass production in the 20th century.1

Classic disruption

3D printing is a classic disruptive technology according to the disruption pattern identified by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.2 It is simpler, cheaper, smaller and more convenient to use than traditional manufacturing technology. Current 3D printing technology is “good enough” to serve markets that previously had no manufacturing capability at all (e.g., small businesses, hospitals, schools, DIYers). However, the technology is not expected to flourish in traditional manufacturing markets for a number of years, so it is unlikely that an entire commercial passenger airplane will be 3D–printed any time soon. Still, traditional manufacturers need to take notice; there are many examples of “good enough” technologies that eventually disrupted and dominated their industry, including transistor radios and personal computers.

3D printing changes the calculus of manufacturing by optimizing for batches of one.

All disruptive technologies start out inferior to the dominant technology of the time. When the first experimental 3D printers emerged 20 years ago, they were nowhere near the production quality of traditional manufacturing processes. However, as Christensen observed in his research, the new technologies find a market that is underserved by the current technology (which is often focused on the higher end of the market). 

1. “A third industrial revolution,” The Economist, 21 April 2012. 


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