How 3D Printing Will Disrupt Manufacturing

Don’t dismiss it as a hobbyist’s obsession. Make it part of your business strategy.

If you’re worried about the strength of a material or a part, don’t use it in an airplane. Sub-zero temperatures, 500-mile-an-hour (plus) winds, and shear forces that threaten to tear the plane apart at its weakest link are just some of the otherworldly stresses these multiton beasts face as they hurtle through the air, carrying their precious cargo.

So why is Airbus planning to use parts made from a 3D printer – considered by most people today simply a hobbyist’s obsession – in the most crucial area of the plane, the wing? Because 3D printing allows Airbus to use designs that, a few years ago, airplane designers could only dream of, such as a wing structure design based on the strong, elegant, and lightweight natural design of a water lily that grows in the Amazon River.

But replicating complex designs that have evolved in nature over millennia is just the beginning of the benefits of 3D printing, which itself has been quietly evolving over the past few decades to where it is ready for prime time. For example, the 3D printed airframe parts will be up to 55% lighter than traditional parts, but they will be stronger. And they will be created with a new manufacturing process that consumes 90% less energy, uses 95% less raw material, and allows Airbus to consolidate components as well as avoid tooling, cutting the number of production steps in half.

“In 2017 we will print aluminum parts, in 2018 we will print things like spoilers, and in 2025 maybe an entire fuselage. We are going through the complete aircraft to see where else it makes sense to use 3D printing,” says Peter Sander, vice president, emerging technologies and concepts, for Airbus.

Aerospace isn’t the only business jumping into 3D printing. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2018, nearly 50% of manufacturers in the consumer products, heavy goods, and life sciences industries will be using 3D printing to produce parts for items they consume, sell, or service. Forecasts for the 3D printing industry are equally bullish.

A bigger impact than any manufacturing technology before it

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is still too slow and expensive to replace most conventional manufacturing applications. However, as equipment and material costs continue to drop, as throughput increases, and as maximum build sizes expand over the next decade, 3D printing will expand dramatically. And it will disrupt virtually every aspect of manufacturing, from initial design to shop-floor setup and from manufacturing and assembly to supply chain, logistics, and distribution.

“Additive manufacturing technology could very well have a larger impact on manufacturing than any other technology,” writes industry analyst and consultant Terry Wohlers in Wohlers Report 2014, a global study on the state of the 3D printing industry.

Manufacturers and suppliers up and down the value chain will be affected as the use of 3D printing expands over the next decade. As barriers to entry fall, smaller companies will challenge larger manufacturers with new business models that create a competitive advantage. To counter that, larger manufacturers should start preparing now with a situational assessment:

  • Determine the drivers for 3D printing in your industry
  • Calculate the effects 3D printing could have on the supply chain, manufacturing, assembly, and other areas of the business
  • Decide which components will benefit from being redesigned to take full advantage of additive manufacturing approaches

Not every manufacturing application will be a fit, but companies need to build a strategy, find the sweet spots, and begin exploiting 3D printing within their own unique business contexts before the industry begins changing around them.

Six Transformative Forces

Here are six ways 3D printing will transform the manufacturing business.

1. Innovation and product design cycles will accelerate.

Because 3D printers require no up-front tooling and relatively little setup time, manufacturers can move from initial design to prototype to finished product more quickly than in the past. “It will change the cost of bringing new products to market,” says Andrew Blau, managing director, strategic risk solutions, at Deloitte & Touche.

A traditional prototype takes 8 to 16 weeks to make and can cost over US$100,000. With 3D printing, we can produce, assemble, and prep it for testing in under a week for just a few thousand dollars.
— Harold Sears, additive manufacturing technical expert, Ford Motor Company

Production machines can switch between different parts as fast as operators can load a new 3D design file and feed in the raw materials, giving manufacturers unprecedented levels of agility and flexibility. The additive process enables the manufacture of highly complex parts that can’t be built using traditional techniques, and reduces component counts by allowing complex assemblies to be manufactured as a single part, speeding assembly times and reducing labor costs.

With conventional manufacturing of uniform parts, per-unit costs drop sharply as volume increases. However, costs for traditional manufacturing tend to rise sharply as the complexity of parts and products increases, while costs remain relatively flat for 3D printing.

Reduce prototyping time from weeks to days

Once initial setup and tooling costs have been completed, the incremental cost to produce parts using conventional manufacturing processes is relatively low. For some items, such as a simple injectionmolded plastic part, the cost per part with 3D printing may be 20 to 150 times more than conventional manufacturing methods at high volumes. But the cost to develop one-off prototypes, highly customized products, or low-volume parts with 3D printers is far more economical because up-front tooling costs don’t exist.

Traditional tooling also takes time, so product development iterations that currently take three months using conventional methods are reduced to days or hours with 3D printing. That makes prototyping a sweet spot for 3D printing.

3d printing

As a fail-early, fail-fast mind-set takes hold, innovation and prototyping cycles will compress radically, and more prototype iterations will be created in less time. The result? Faster time to market with lighter, better-performing products that may cost less to manufacture. New products will be introduced more quickly, and existing products will see more frequent updates.

Ford slashes prototyping time and cost

The Ford Motor Company has been using 3D printing to develop many different prototypes, including engine intake manifolds. “A traditional prototype takes 8 to 16 weeks to make and can cost over US$100,000. With 3D printing, we can produce, assemble, and prep it for testing in under a week for just a few thousand dollars,” says Harold Sears, additive manufacturing technical expert at Ford.

As material quality continues to improve, Ford will expand its use of functional prototypes that can be used in testing rather than just for fit and function. Sears also sees a growing role in the production of tooling, fixtures, gauges, and other equipment used in the manufacturing process.

Small production runs become more economical

3D printing won’t play a role in mass-produced automobile components at Ford, where cycle times are measured in the seconds of traditional manufacturing rather than the hours typical of 3D printing. But over the next three years, the industry will adopt the technology in automobile production for vehicles where volumes fall under 10,000 units a year, such as high-end luxury and sports cars, says Wohlers.

2. Barriers to entry will drop.

Eliminating tooling costs and using the same machine to manufacture many different types of parts are lowering barriers to entry across many industries, enabling new competitors to enter markets with great speed and agility—and far less up-front investment. “You don’t need capital to invest in a factory to start manufacturing,” says Jarrod Bassan, senior consultant at CSC and author of the research paper “3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing.”3d print 2


Small companies will become even more disruptive

Instead, startups can contract with manufacturer-oriented 3D printing service bureaus, such as RedEye and Kraftwurx, that don’t have to tool up. This move toward manufacturing as a service could turn some manufacturers into designers that build 3D printing files and handle marketing but not actual production. “We’ll see an incredible variety of business models, with opportunities for smaller companies to challenge larger ones,” Bassan says.

3. Manufacturing and assembly will move closer to customers.

With traditional manufacturing, production capacity must be consolidated and centralized in order to achieve economies of scale, amortize up-front tooling costs across large volumes of products, and produce uniform parts at the lowest possible cost. Initial setup costs are high, but the cost to produce each part is low—typically a fraction of the cost to produce a 3D-printed part.

In the 3D printing economy, the need to amortize setup costs over large production runs disappears. Freed from traditional economies-of-scale constraints, manufacturing and assembly can move physically nearer to the customer and become more responsive to individual customer needs while reducing logistics costs and, potentially, carbon footprints.

For some applications, design files and raw materials will be delivered to a local 3D printing service hub where the product is produced, to be picked up by customers in-store or shipped to them directly. In other cases, some components may be shipped to local assembly depots, where 3D-printed components will be added to the final product.

The rise of distributed manufacturing through service bureaus that serve multiple manufacturers will enable these firms to buy materials in bulk, achieving economies of scale that will help to drive down costs of both additive manufacturing equipment and raw materials.

Radically reduce logistics costs

Rather than building and shipping parts to assembly plants, some suppliers will begin installing 3D printers on the shop floor, shipping only raw materials for just-in-time fabrication at the point of assembly. Because raw materials consist of packaged pellets and powdered materials that are more compact than traditional raw materials, such as rolled steel, cargo shipment costs will go down. At the same time, fewer finished components will need to be shipped, which will also reduce costs. Any increase in energy prices that drives up cargo transportation costs will accelerate this trend toward distributed manufacturing.

Adding creates less waste than taking away 

Additive processing also creates less waste. “Today we need 300 tons of material to build 32 tons of parts,” says Airbus’s Sander. “With 3D printing, we only need 30 tons of metal powder.”

Retailers begin manufacturing in stores 

Meanwhile, local retailers, service bureaus, and manufacturer depots will also get into the act. Retailers are already experimenting with using 3D printers to fulfill customer orders for simple parts. In this scenario, only raw materials and the design file need to be shipped, bypassing traditional manufacturing, supplier, and distribution channels altogether.

A hybrid model will emerge

Given the contrasting cost advantages between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing, each will have its place in the future. “Decentralization will occur only in cases where the products are fairly simple and don’t require a lot of assembly or finishing,” says Wohlers.

Some, including Russ Rasmus, managing director, manufacturing, Accenture Strategy, think that a hybrid model will emerge, in which some components are centrally produced, with final customization added nearer to the customer. For example, the GE Aviation business will produce its new LEAP fuel nozzle from both 3D-printed and conventionally manufactured parts.

For such applications, where mass customization trumps mass production, the new economies will “radically localize manufacturing as consumers interact more directly with each other and with manufacturers, some of which will act as printer hubs, offering services to anyone with a design to print,” write Irene Petrick and Timothy Simpson in their paper, “3D Printing Disrupts Manufacturing.”

4. Production speed and quality will increase.

Because 3D printing gradually builds up a part in additive layers, designers can create very complex structures that are impossible to make with conventional, subtractive manufacturing processes. Suddenly, parts that had to be manufactured separately and welded or bolted together can be manufactured in one operation as a single part.


GE Aviation has been consolidating parts like crazy with 3D printing, with the LEAP fuel nozzle being a prime example. “The part is five times more durable, 25% lighter than the parts it replaces, and consolidates 20 parts to 1, cutting down on assembly time,” says Tom Sinnett, applications manager in the Additive Development Center.

At Airbus, designers were able to consolidate 126 parts held together with 80 rivets into 1 part. “We have no tooling to maintain, and we don’t have to stock 126 parts,” says Sander.

5. Manufacturing skills will be redefined.

In traditional manufacturing, the most valued people on the shop floor are the tool and die makers. They combine the smarts of an engineer with the skilled hands of an artisan, often handcrafting the machines and molds used to make things.

8489591209_6de7b8987b_oIn the 3D world, the need for that hands-on artistry goes away. Computer design abilities will reign supreme, and continuous collaboration with manufacturing and end customers will rule the day. “Design talent is going to be a huge constraining factor for the adoption of 3D printing in manufacturing over the next 10 years,” says Mark Cotteleer, research director at Deloitte Services and author of a research report on the use of 3D printing in manufacturing. “You’ve got a whole new set of capabilities embedded in these technologies that require a departure from that traditional design mind-set.”

Just-in-disaster manufacturing 

The Achilles’ heel of traditional manufacturing is its inability to respond to rapid changes in demand. This is where 3D printing comes in. With its potential to add new jobs, perhaps even new business models, 3D printing can become an adjunct to conventional manufacturing, says Cotteleer. It offers flex capacity to pick up the slack during an emergency or a demand surge that overwhelms traditional manufacturing capacity. “Yes, it’s more expensive, but the cost of using 3D printing for two weeks is nothing compared to shutting down the entire operation, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour.”

6. Warehouses and inventory will go virtual.

Warehouse and inventory requirements will lessen due to the ability to produce low-volume parts on demand and in small quantities. “Manufacturers have tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of inventory sitting in warehouses,” says Cotteleer. “3D printing will be used to work that down over the next 5 to 15 years.”

Design files will replace bolts

Initially, manufacturers will 3D print only items that are ordered infrequently such as spare parts. But as 3D printing machines become faster and less expensive, and as material quality continues to improve, the number of parts that will be created on demand using 3D printing will expand greatly.

Increasingly, warehoused parts will be replaced by virtual inventories and design files that the manufacturer ships electronically to a local manufacturing depot, a service bureau, or even to a 3D printer in the customer’s home or business. “Spare parts and inventory are one of the areas that’s the most advanced right now because of the value of having 3D printers in remote locations,” says Rasmus.

With 3D printing, no casts, molds, or other tooling equipment need to be inventoried for each part, and manufacturers will eliminate expensive minimum restocking order requirements.

The end of the 50-year part

“Let’s say you have a part that sells just one unit a year,” says Cotteleer. “If the minimum reorder quantity is 50 units, you have a 50-year position in that component. Or once a year you can print that thing out and you won’t have to track 50 of those over the next 50 years.” That, he says, will free up enormous amounts of working capital currently sitting in warehouses.

Changes in inventory will also affect business processes. When is an order considered available? What is the value of virtual inventory and the raw materials stored next to the 3D printer in the warehouse? 3D printing concepts and practices will need to be integrated into business processes and the software that automates them.

Identify Your Printable Parts

3D printing isn’t coming, it’s already here. It’s a disruptive force that reduces barriers to entry, dramatically changes resource use from supply chain to factory floor, and enables new competition. 3D printing speeds time to market, consumes materials more efficiently, and could save manufacturers a boatload of money—especially in areas such as prototyping, customization, and low-volume production.


Incumbent manufacturers have time to make decisions: the changes will take hold gradually over the next decade. But now is the time to begin building 3D printing design and production expertise. “Advantage and opportunity will come to those who adapt early,” says Blau.

3D printing won’t replace traditional manufacturing for applications where standardized parts need to be manufactured in high volumes and at the lowest possible cost—at least not any time soon. But manufacturers need to discover where 3D printing can be used to create new designs that are superior in some way, such as when consolidating parts counts or when creating a complex part that could only be produced using additive manufacturing techniques.

But not every part is a good fit for 3D printing. Assessing parts in production with a printability index is key to determining where 3D printing offers the greatest business value for your organization, says Sunny Webb, senior R&D lead at Accenture Technology Labs.

The implications of 3D printing go beyond just aerospace and a few other niche applications, says Sander. “It’s a step change. It’s a revolution. Every industry will be affected.”

About the author:

Uwe Kylau is a development expert at SAP, where he manages 3D printing activities and workshops in SAP’s maker program, d-shop.

Kai Goerlich is Idea Director, Thought Leadership, at SAP.

Robert L. Mitchell is an independent writer and editor focusing on emerging technologies.


Executive Quarterly, Q3 2015