The 3D Printing Revolution

The use of 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling, trinkets, and toys. Companies such as GE, Lockheed Martin, and BMW are switching to it for industrial production at scale. More companies will follow as the range of printable materials continues to expand. Already available are basic plastics, photosensitive resins, ceramics, cement, glass, numerous metals, thermoplastic composites (some infused with carbon nanotubes and fibres), and even stem cells. In this article, the author makes the case that additive manufacturing will gain ground quickly, given advantages such as greater flexibility, fewer assembly steps and other cost savings, and enhanced product-design possibilities.

Managers, D’Aveni writes, should now be engaging with strategic questions on three levels: Sellers of tangible products should ask how their offerings could be improved, whether by themselves or by competitors. Industrial enterprises should revisit their operations to determine what network of supply chain assets and what mix of old and new processes will be optimal. And leaders must consider the strategic implications as whole commercial ecosystems begin to form around the new realities of 3-D printing.

Additive’s Advantages

It may be hard to imagine that this technology will displace today’s standard ways of making things in large quantities. Traditional injection-molding presses, for example, can spit out thousands of widgets an hour. By contrast, people who have watched 3-D printers in action in the hobbyist market often find the layer-by-layer accretion of objects comically slow. But recent advances in the technology are changing that dramatically in industrial settings.

Some may forget why standard manufacturing occurs with such impressive speed. Those widgets pour out quickly because heavy investments have been made up front to establish the complex array of machine tools and equipment required to produce them. The first unit is extremely expensive to make, but as identical units follow, their marginal cost plummets.

Additive manufacturing doesn’t offer anything like that economy of scale. However, it avoids the downside of standard manufacturing—a lack of flexibility. Because each unit is built independently, it can easily be modified to suit unique needs or, more broadly, to accommodate improvements or changing fashion. And setting up the production system in the first place is much simpler, because it involves far fewer stages. That’s why 3-D printing has been so valuable for producing one-offs such as prototypes and rare replacement parts. But additive manufacturing increasingly makes sense even at higher scale. Buyers can choose from endless combinations of shapes, sizes, and colors, and this customization adds little to a manufacturer’s cost even as orders reach mass-production levels.

A big part of the additive advantage is that pieces that used to be molded separately and then assembled can now be produced as one piece in a single run. A simple example is sunglasses: The 3-D process allows the porosity and mixture of plastics to vary in different areas of the frame. The earpieces come out soft and flexible, while the rims holding the lenses are hard. No assembly required.

Printing parts and products also allows them to be designed with more-complex architectures, such as honeycombing within steel panels or geometries previously too fine to mill. Complex mechanical parts—an encased set of gears, for example—can be made without assembly. Additive methods can be used to combine parts and generate far more interior detailing. That’s why GE Aviation has switched to printing the fuel nozzles of certain jet engines. It expects to churn out more than 45,000 of the same design a year, so one might assume that conventional manufacturing methods would be more suitable. But printing technology allows a nozzle that used to be assembled from 20 separately cast parts to be fabricated in one piece. GE says this will cut the cost of manufacturing by 75%.

Additive manufacturing can also use multiple printer jets to lay down different materials simultaneously. Thus Optomec and other companies are developing conductive materials and methods of printing microbatteries and electronic circuits directly into or onto the surfaces of consumer electronic devices. Additional applications include medical equipment, transportation assets, aerospace components, measurement devices, telecom infrastructure, and many other “smart” things.

The enormous appeal of limiting assembly work is pushing additive manufacturing equipment to grow ever larger. At the current extreme, the U.S. Department of Defense, Lockheed Martin, Cincinnati Tool Steel, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering to develop a capability for printing most of the endo- and exoskeletons of jet fighters, including the body, wings, internal structural panels, embedded wiring and antennas, and soon the central load-bearing structure. So-called big area additive manufacturing makes such large-object fabrication possible by using a huge gantry with computerized controls to move the printers into position. When this process has been certified for use, the only assembly required will be the installation of plug-and-play electronics modules for navigation, communications, weaponry, and electronic countermeasure systems in bays created during the printing process. In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. military has been using drones from Aurora Flight Sciences, which prints the entire body of these unmanned aerial vehicles—some with wingspans of 132 feet—in one build.

It’s happening, and it will transform your operations and strategy.

Many of the biggest players already in the business of additive manufacturing are vying to develop the platforms on which other companies will build and connect. Platform owners will be powerful because production itself is likely to become commoditized over time. Those facilitating connections in the digital ecosystem will sit in the middle of a tremendous volume of industrial transactions, collecting and selling valuable information.

Source: https://hbr.org/2015/05/the-3-d-printing-revolution