Additive manufacturing – the official term for 3D printing - has been used by the automotive and aerospace industries to build prototypes for some time now. But over the last few years, 3D print technologies have evolved more rapidly. Nike recently launched the first athletic shoe including 3D-printed components, and fashion designers, architects, artists, and food technicians are experimenting with it. The technology’s potential seems almost boundless.
3D print technology makes it possible to create nearly any geometric form with the help of design software – e.g. incorporating hollow spaces and filigree honeycomb structures that are much lighter than traditionally manufactured components but offer the same stability. In medical technology, 3D printing has already achieved standards on a par with traditional manufacturing methods. Dental crowns, hip joint prosthetics, and customised hearing aid shells: 3D printing is used wherever “replacement parts” for the body are needed.
Manufacturers from all industry sectors are exploring which items they may be able to produce using 3D print technology, and logistics service providers are launching pilot projects to identify the need, potential and options for adjusting their business models to include 3D print services. Components manufactured with 3D printing offer the same safety and stability as the traditionally manufactured components they replace, but at a fraction of the weight. Integrating such components into finished aircraft for example helps save fuel and reduces CO2 emissions.
3D printing enables decentralisation, saving transport costs and driving down overall logistics expenses.
It is also useful for small production batches or limited mass production, and for creating the required moulds for this type of manufacturing. In the future we may store replacement parts in virtual warehouses rather than distribution centres and print them based on demand, which would significantly reduce required storage space and resources. This may also provide the foundation for high-wage countries to “near shore” production back home following earlier outsourcing to low-wage countries and saving customs duties based on electronic transmission of digital design plans for local production rather than importing the actual goods.
But the greatest opportunities for additive manufacturing are in replacement parts. Companies have an obligation to supply replacement parts to their customers, even many years after the sale. Storing these replacement parts ties up large areas of storage, which costs money. Many replacement parts may no longer be usable after such long periods of storage, so they have to be disposed. Older replacement parts can no longer be used in new product versions when equipment is upgraded and new functionalities are added. 3D printing offers the solution to all these problems. It is possible to save a good deal of storage space if all you need to do is archive digital blueprints. It is no longer necessary to physically store seldom-used replacement parts. Replacement parts for tools and machinery with improved functionality can be digitally adapted and printed out only when needed. This saves materials and resources.
But it is still unclear to what extent 3D printing can outstrip or even replace traditional manufacturing and logistics processes. Despite its potential, 3D print technology has limitations. To begin with, it cannot compete with the speed of traditional manufacturing processes and is not yet suitable for mass production. Plus, traditional processes for mass production are significantly cheaper than producing large quantities based on 3D print technology. And if products require smooth surfaces, they will need finishing following 3D print production, because it leaves a rough surface structure on objects made of synthetic fibres. Various product liability issues remain unresolved, too: if anyone can become a manufacturer or producer, who is liable when something breaks? Intellectual property (IP) rights present another challenge: if the “value” of a product resides in a digital file, will manufacturers insert copy protections and assign licensing rights to protect their IP? 3D printing is still so young that the law lags behind on such issues.
On the regulatory side, 3D printing also has the potential to undermine control mechanisms that ensure products are safe and appropriate for the market. Customs authorities lose their oversight capabilities when goods are no longer transported across borders; they would be unable to conduct consumer protection or safety controls, or keep counterfeit goods off the market the way they do now.
With 3D printing, goods can be printed close to the consumer, meaning they no longer need to be shipped halfway around the world. But this doesn’t mean that we will soon only be shipping raw materials and 3D print cartridges. In fact, experts are sceptical that the technology will have much of an impact on global transport volumes in the near future. The trend towards custom production is currently more likely to boost “last-mile” shipping, i.e. the movement of goods from a transport hub to their final destination in the area.
But one thing is certain: The market share of 3D print technology will increase and the trend toward customisation will continue. We will all benefit from the new technology’s ability to accommodate individual customer requests during production. Manufacturers will no longer keep large volumes of standardised products in stock, moving instead to a more flexible manufacturing model based on the “made to order” principle. The most likely outcome is that 3D printing will take its place alongside traditional production technologies, rather than replace them.