How 3D Printing Will Energize The Chemical Industry - Part 2: Commercial Implications And The Future

Stefan Guertzgen

In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed key opportunity areas for 3D printing in the chemical industry. Let’s now take a look at commercial implications and the future ahead.

Commercial benefits

3D printing promises to reduce supply chain costs across all industries. For example, the ability to print spare parts on demand can save money through improved asset uptime and more efficient workforce management. 3D printing also helps control costs with reduced waste and a smaller carbon footprint. In contrast to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing techniques in which raw material is removed, 3D printing is an additive process that uses only the amount of material that is needed. This can save significant amounts of raw materials. In the aerospace industry, for example, Airbus estimates 3D printing could reduce its raw material costs by up to 90 percent.

From a manufacturing perspective, 3D printing can streamline processes, accelerate design cycles, and add agility to operations. Printing prototypes on site speeds the R&D development cycle and shortens time to market. Researchers can make, test, and finalize prototypes in days instead of weeks. Also, the ability to print parts or equipment on demand will eliminate expensive inventory holding costs and restocking order requirements and free up floor space for other purposes.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the primary benefit of 3D printing for the chemical industry is the market potential of developing innovative proprietary formulations for printer feeds and owning the corresponding intellectual property.

Obstacles to adoption

As with most new technology introductions, barriers must be overcome for this potential to fully be realized. A much-discussed but unresolved issue is intellectual property protection. Similar to the way digital music is shared, 3D printable digital blueprints could be shared illegally and/or unknowingly either within a company or by outside hackers.

In addition to digital files, users can print molds from a scanned object and use them to mass-produce exact replicas that are protected under copyright, trademark, and patent laws. The problem will continue to grow as companies move to an on-demand manufacturing network, requiring digital blueprints to be shared with independent fabricators. Gartner predicts that by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.

Regulatory issues are slowing the adoption of 3D printer applications. This is especially applicable in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, but has potential impact in many markets. For example, globally regulating what individuals will create with access to the Internet and a 3D chemical printer will be difficult. Also, as 3D printing drives small and customer-specific lot sizes, it will likely spur an explosion of proprietary bills of material and recipes, which will be hard to track and control under REACH or REACH-like regulations. Because this is a new frontier, many regulatory issues must be addressed.

In addition to legal and regulatory challenges, the industry has a long way to go to reliably reproduce high-quality products. Until 3D printing can match the speed and quality output requirements of conventional manufacturing processes, it will likely be reserved for prototypes or small-sized lots.

3D printing: a new frontier

While 3D printing has not reached the point of use for large-scale production or to consistently make custom products, ongoing innovations drive high demand. Gartner’s 3D printer market forecast estimates that shipments of industrial 3D printers will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 72.8 percent through 2019 – from almost $944.3 million to more than $14.6 billion. The number of 3D printers purchased each year is expected to increase to more than 5.6 million units in 2019, a CAGR of 121.9 percent.

3D printing will initially help chemical companies increase profitability by lowering costs and improving operational efficiency. However, the industry-changing opportunity is the chance to develop new feeds and formulations. The most successful chemical companies of the future will be the ones with the vision to begin developing and implementing 3D printing solutions today.

How far are you in implementing 3D printing as part of your overall digital transformation strategy? Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas with us!

For more on the implications of 3D printing technology, see 6 Surprising Ways 3D Printing Will Disrupt Manufacturing.

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About Stefan Guertzgen

Dr. Stefan Guertzgen is the Global Director of Industry Solution Marketing for Chemicals at SAP. He is responsible for driving Industry Thought Leadership, Positioning & Messaging and strategic Portfolio Decisions for Chemicals.