3D printing is not new. In fact, earlier technologies, called Rapid Prototyping (RP), have been around since the 80’s. Obviously the technology has advanced dramatically, the standards and methodologies have been further refined, and the costs have plummeted (It took until 2007 for the first 3D printer to be under $10,000!). But even with all of that advancement the use of these printers has primarily been in prototyping, and some interesting, but not really applicable, consumer contributions. But recent advancements in the technology, and the materials that can be printed, are ripping down this barrier causing some very large industry ripples. Here we explore a few examples.
First lets look at Arie Kurniawan, an engineer from Indonesia, who won a GE sponsored 3D printing challenge by redesigning a simple bracket for a jet engine. On the surface it looks innocent enough, but when you dig a little deeper the story gets pretty interesting. Arie is an engineer in a completely unrelated field, has no experience with aerospace engineering, and does not work for GE. Yet he came up with a design that was strong enough for the task, and was 84% lighter than what the internal GE engineers had designed. The total prize money offered by GE was $20,000. Which sounds like a lot, but considering it is 1/5th – 1/10th the salary of a decent engineer, and considering the contest yielded 7 usable bracket designs, I would say this was a steal for GE. So what if the aerospace engineering field starts doing more of this, or any industry for that matter? What happens to those internal engineers? Are they cast out, re-purposed, made independent? One thing is for sure, if companies like GE can drive down costs, and increase performance in part design and engineering, they will do so, even if jobs are on the line.
Let’s also examine manufacturing as a whole. As 3D printing continues to advance, the need for the traditional manufacturing process of certain items will disappear. Consumers and businesses will no longer be interested in purchasing a physical object, they will be interested in the digital rights to print whatever quantity of objects they want. You’ll no longer need to buy a toothbrush, you’ll just need the digital specifications to print one at home. Break a wine glass, no problem, the original one you bought now comes with 3D printing insurance so you can print another. The store sold out of that cool toy for your son’s next birthday, not an issue, download the print-it-yourself version the night before. We will see this continue to expand from small obscure items, to more complex ones. And at each step it will put one more nail in the coffin of the traditional manufactures that have not kept up with the technology.
What about the medical field? There are already some amazing procedures being performed as a result of the 3D printing of biocompatible materials. Things like heart valves, ear cartilage, medical models for sensors, and low cost prosthetic parts are already being printed. We can expect this to continue in new and exciting ways. In the not so far future we will be restoring nerves, printing entire organs, and potentially even repairing human brains. The possibilities are inspiring, and will forever change how our doctors provide medical care.
These are only a few examples of how 3D printing is already impacting industries. It is a technology that must be examined by every business. Whether from a cost management perspective, for operational execution, or for product enhancements; 3D printing is forcing business model changes, and shaking up every industry. And it’s not going away!