How will 3D printing change the business world?

By Adam Turner | May 15, 2013

It might seem like far-fetched science fiction, but the ability to print custom objects on demand could eventually change the face of manufacturing.

Rather than using ink to print text on a page, 3D printers actually create solid objects - putting them together one slender slice at a time. Cheap 3D printers tend to print with plastic or nylon, while more sophisticated 3D printers use powdered materials and can create intricate objects made of ceramic, metal or glass.

Creating complex objects for a technological age

With a detailed 3D blueprint you can recreate any shape or structure, but the potential of 3D printing isn't limited to simply producing plastic toys and ceramic figurines. The rise of multi-material 3D printers allows the creation of far more complex objects. Advancements in printing circuit boards are also set to revolutionise the 3D printing arena in the next few years. We're not there yet, but it's not inconceivable that we could eventually print our own high-tech gadgets.

It's a fast-moving area, but don't expect to buy your very own Star Trek replicator that spits out a hot cup of Earl Grey tea built from scratch at the subatomic level. Even the expense and time-consuming nature of today's 3D printing technology means it's not a feasible threat to large-scale manufacturing. For now, it's better suited to design work, rapid prototyping and other short-run custom jobs.

As the technology improves and prices fall, it's not far-fetched to envision 3D printing's usefulness further afield. Producing replacement parts on demand is one obvious application, from automotive panels to door handles, but 3D printing could eventually change the initial manufacturing process and redefine the supply chain. Printing products on demand is perhaps the epitome of the "just in time" production strategy.

Potential for piracy and reduced labour costs

Digitising objects is not without its downside. The copyright difficulties faced by today's digital content providers could also extend into the manufacturing space as 3D printing introduces a whole new form of piracy that goes far beyond today's hassles with cheap imports and knock-offs. Once the 3D digital plans for objects are leaked, pirates might go beyond downloading music to actually downloading the plans to print an iPod.

Another key factor with 3D printing is that it significantly reduces labour costs incurred as part of the manufacturing process. Countries that currently benefit from low labour costs could lose that advantage if 3D printing eventually becomes an economically viable alternative to large-scale manufacturing. Moving production closer to retail outlets would also reduce transportation costs. In some industries, these savings could help offset the extra expense of 3D printing compared to outsourcing manufacturing to the other side of the world.

It might seem like a novelty in the short-term, but in time 3D printing could forever change the face of manufacturing. How might 3D printing impact on your business in the short or long-term?


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