From car production lines to the operating theatre, additive manufacturing (AM) is totally disrupting the manufacturing value chain, enabling a shift from mass production to mass customization. AM is defined as the process of joining materials to create a 3D, solid object from a digital mode l, which can have almost any possible shape. Perhaps better known as “3D printing”, it has been in existence since the early 1980s but recent technological advances have created a boom in the number of businesses using it. Wohlers Associates announced earlier this year that the industry reached a global market volume of $5bn in 2015, with further growth expected over the next few years.
In this introductory post, I explore how additive manufacturing is opening up new opportunities for organizations to be more creative, reducing their costs and saving them time in the process.
The history of AM
Traditionally, 3D printing was used for rapid prototyping, enabling developers to easily improve and change their designs based on 3D prints. Manufacturers would benefit from lower development costs, shorter leader times, reduced energy consumption and less material waste. Today however, 3D printing is enabling organizations to manufacture final complex parts and gain these same advantages. As a result, manufacturers are able to reduce inventory, make fully customized products on-demand, create smaller localized manufacturing environments, and even reduce their environmental footprint by reducing logistical costs.
With the advantages of AM over other manufacturing techniques, it is expected to revolutionize the industry over the next few years. Now therefore, is the time for organizations to prepare for this revolution and think about the new possibilities this technology will bring. In the following years, AM will create three paths of “disruption”:
- Individualized products – supporting the trend of increased personalization. The example of Under Armour, using 3D printing techniques to produce trainers tailored to meet each individual customer’s cushioning and weight requirements, might be a good source of inspiration
- New geometries, materials and material properties – providing new and enhanced functionalities in high tech materials. Bio-printing is one such example here, whereby bio printers are being used to artificially construct living tissue, and in time, human organs
- Decentralized production – allowing distributed industrial production on-demand, home production and outsourcing of production to partners, which will have major consequences on future business models.
We are already witnessing amazing developments, such as those related to 4D printing – the printing of materials whose properties change when triggered by stimuli like heat or pressure. AM is also enabling us to create our own smart materials or metamaterials – microstructures that are engineered to find certain properties that differ from those of the base material. In addition, it’s helping us to print gigantic structures like buildings, boats or planes and microscopic structures at an atomic level for electronics.
While the potential of AM is huge, we won’t witness the most disruptive applications in conventional industries but in other sectors, such as healthcare and aerospace.
Look out for my second post over the next few weeks, in which I explore how additive manufacturing is being applied to scenarios both close to home and out of this world.