Digital Pulse examines the ins and outs of 3D printing. Here’s everything you need to know about what it is, how it’s being used and why your business might want to invest.
While it has existed since the 1980s, it has only been in the last twenty years or so that 3D printing technology has become accessible to consumers and more widely used by manufacturers. Currently, it is a US$8.5 billion market, and expected to grow at a rate of 15% through 2021.1
Computer generated blueprints, or models, guide the printers to layer materials into a completed object. The ‘inks’ that 3D printers ‘print’ with are vast, from plastic (the most commonly used in consumer printers), to metals such as steel and gold. Food, such as chocolate, can be printed, as can glass, wood and even human tissue.
There are many kinds of 3D printers. Desktop models use molten plastic, but other machines use lasers to fuse powdered material (including metals) together, or to solidify resin in light-sensitive baths. Others use adhesives to bind material together.
Printing offers great freedom due to the complexity that it enables. Unlike in traditional manufacturing, where different parts need to be built separately and then assembled, 3D printing can often meet performance and design needs in one piece, without additional cost.
It also offers flexibility in innovation. A single printer can print any number of products. Businesses can produce multiple items, or pivot entire lines of product as the market dictates. And the prototype to manufacturing process can be iterative, rather than separate costly stages, speeding up design to production.
With additive manufacturing, mass customisation becomes cost-effective, no small feat in a world that has relied on mass production to achieve scale. Smaller factories that use 3D printing can be located closer to their products’ end-users, cutting out storage and shipping costs and reducing transport time. Shorter, more localised value chains have immense potential for business.
Technological advances will likely provide cheaper ‘ink’ in a variety of new fit-for-purpose materials (and true colours), and with increasing print speed. Issues still need to be addressed, such as quality control, the ease of infringing intellectual property and material costs, but we are only at the beginning of the viable 3D journey. Things will change, quickly.
The PwC 2017 Global Digital IQ Survey responses showed automotive industries (35%), industrial product companies (29%) and healthcare (29%) on the forefront of future investment. Different industries are taking different approaches to 3D printing — automotive companies have focused their efforts predominantly on plastic manufacturing, while aerospace has made great advances in metal printed parts. Regardless, innovation has been fast, and a number of sectors are already making surprisingly diverse 3D printed products.
Manufacturing, aerospace and defence
3D printing is perfect for prototyping and design, but increasingly it is pushing into manufacturing and spare parts. Audi has its own department to print automotive parts and tools.2 Boeing, Airbus, GE Aviation and Lockheed Martin are investing in the R&D and production of flight-approved parts,3 while Air New Zealand has experimented in printing internal items such as tray tables and seat protectors.4 Militarily, the US among others are creating mission-critical parts for machinery such as tanks.5
Printers are able to print concrete houses in a matter of hours or days, at low cost, promising economical solutions for housing shortages, emergency accommodation needs and homing the homeless.6 7 3D construction is being investigated for use on potential future space colonies.8
3D printed personalised casts are already being used to set broken bones.9 Custom-fit hearing aids10 and patient-specific orthopaedic and dental implants11 have been created to replace mass-produced generic (and often unsuitable) pieces. Organs such as skin and hearts made from human stem cell ‘bio-ink’ are on the horizon,12 13 with patient-specific ‘ink’ potentially removing the risk of implant rejection.
High fashion, such as seen at this year’s Met Gala, is fabricating one-of-a-kind 3D clothing.14 Artists are creating sculptural pieces, printing brushstroke-specific reproductions of paintings15 and intricate jewellery. Museum replicas of priceless artefacts allow the public to interact and learn from history without harm,16 as can reconstructions of prehistoric skeletons17 and yes, dinosaurs.
3D printing produces less waste than subtractive manufacturing, uses less raw material in hollow pieces, and can even print in waste plastic. It takes up far less square footage in its creation and enables local production. But it also promises direct environmental benefits. 3D printed coral reefs are recreating lost habitat for marine life18 and animals are being made whole with artificial limbs, beaks and shells.19
NASA commissioned 3D printed pizza for its astronauts,20 but closer to home, restaurants are already printing edible meals. In time, ingredient capsules could be purchased from supermarkets, or filled at home, before use in a personal food printer. Health apps could instruct printers to add nutritional boosters into meals for lacking vitamins. And for poverty stricken areas, printed nutritional aid could be life saving.
The cost and flexibility benefits mentioned above should have businesses at least thinking about 3D printing. And plenty are. A 2017 Strategy& study on digital factories found that 37% of respondents aimed to adopt 3D printing in the next five years.
While 3D printing will not be suitable for all, as voluminous mass-production may be more suited to traditional production methods, there are scenarios where additive manufacturing will have an edge.
Companies should identify parts and processes that they’d like to simplify, make lighter or improve as good candidates for 3D printing, as well as those that must adapt to market changes or that are needed in low-volume. Items that have proven too complex and thus too costly to produce could become viable if printed.
For those that want to go even further, 3D printing could be the key that opens the door to entirely new business models and revenue streams.
With 3D printing, the future is yours to shape.
Interested in learning more? View PwC’s Strategy& report Metals 3D printing: Closing the cost gap and getting to value.