Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is rapidly transitioning from experimentation and hype to real-world implementation and maturity. Two-thirds of all U.S. manufacturers now use 3D printing in some way, either for prototyping (51 percent) or final products (35 percent), according to PwC. In short, additive manufacturing has gone mainstream.
Yet many manufacturers are still looking at 3D printing as an all-or-nothing prospect, in which a product either can or cannot be cost-effectively produced through additive manufacturing. That’s a mistake. By thinking about additive manufacturing more creatively, companies can identify opportunities to leverage 3D printing in specific scenarios where they can gain competitive advantage.
3D-friendly or 3-native?
First, it helps to recognize that there are two general ways that manufacturers can apply 3D printing. The first is named 3D-friendly—existing products or parts that were designed for traditional manufacturing methods. These parts were converted to a 3D printer-friendly digital format and now can be created by a 3D printer.
The second is called 3D-native—new products or parts that are natively designed for production through additive manufacturing (3D printing).
Manufacturers can derive many benefits from using 3D printing to produce existing products or parts, from lower costs to faster production to a greater ability to customize. They can locate production closer to the customer, slashing warehousing and shipping costs. They can revitalize tired brands with new options for product individualization.
But designing products or parts for 3D printing from inception delivers even greater advantages. One example is the ability to design products that simply can’t be produced using traditional manufacturing techniques. Another is the potential to leverage the unique characteristics of additive manufacturing to create products that, for example, are equally strong but much lighter. So imagine ultralight airliner components that use less materials, require less fuel to ship and to use, produce fewer CO2 emissions, and so on — a whole range of qualities that benefit manufacturer and customer alike.
Different dimensions in additive manufacturing
Beyond the 3D-friendly vs. 3D-native question, there are three opportunities that manufacturers might not be thinking about where they can gain advantage through 3D printing:
Limited production runs and mass customization (batch of 1)
Additive manufacturing is especially well-suited to small batches. This can be particularly useful when introducing a new product.
You can leverage additive manufacturing for limited production runs, delaying investment in setting up a traditional production line until you reach higher volumes. You can even do this in simultaneously in multiple geographies if that makes sense for your situation. Once you reach high volumes, you convert to a traditional production line. And if you never reach high volumes, you never have to make that investment. This can allow you to avoid considerable cost and risk.
Product updates or recalls
Unexpected problems with products, or worse, product recalls can be extremely costly and time-consuming. Until you solve the problem, you face lost revenues and a tarnished brand.
Additive manufacturing can help you respond quickly. You can use 3D printing to rapidly prototype replacement parts. You can then use the technology to quickly produce the parts and get them into the marketplace.
The same concept applies to other market dynamics, such as when a rival introduces a new product feature that gives it competitive advantage. By quickly prototyping and producing a response to the new challenge, you can protect revenues and preserve market share.
When a part or component reaches end of life, there eventually comes a final production run. In this scenario, manufacturers estimate how many parts they’ll have to hold in inventory to meet the needs of existing customers. The risk is that you produce 10,000 parts but ultimately need only 5,000, or that you produce 5,000 and then discover, after you’ve dismantled your production line, that you actually need 10,000.
Additive manufacturing gives you a simple solution. You can quickly produce the parts on demand only as you need them. This not only saves you costs for both production and warehousing. it also dramatically improves customer service. As a customer, rather than having to wait weeks or months for a replacement part for my aging Ford, I can now get the part I need in a matter of days. In fact, I might be willing to pay a premium for such convenience, because it will save me money in the long run.
Additive manufacturing is here, and it’s allowing creative companies to improve the way they do business. By considering all the ways 3D printing can enable you to save money, reduce risk, or better serve customers, every manufacturer has the chance to uncover opportunities to gain a competitive edge.
For more on how cutting-edge technology is being used in manufacturing, see Digital Trends In Wholesale Distribution.