Key takeaways

  • Taking the world by storm, 3D printing technologies are expected to be worth $5 billion by 2017
  • 3D printing technologies have positive implications for various industry sectors – offering a customisable and adaptable model for designing, modelling, producing and selling products
  • This new technology has the potential to revolutionise the future of retail, presenting a powerful solution to inventory management challenges

As digital innovation accelerates, entire industries are being revolutionised and manufacturing is one industry on the verge of transformative change. The rise of 3D printing technology is paving the way towards what The Economist  has labelled the ‘third industrial revolution’.

Disrupting traditional methods and models

3D printing, also known as additive layer manufacturing, differentiates significantly from the traditional methods of subtractive manufacturing. Instead of cutting materials away from larger blocks of material, 3D printing assembles solid products layer-by-layer, based upon three-dimensional computer designs and models. The raw material ­– typically plastic (metal can also be used) – is deposited at one end before being heated and melted inside the 3D printer. The material is then extruded, in layers, until the physical product is formed at the other end.

Advances in 3D printing technology are seamlessly linking the digital and physical worlds. As a result, demand for this technology is surging across all spheres: from consumer applications in the home, to different sectors such as retail, healthcare and aviation.

While the concept of 3D printing is by no means a new idea, until recently, it would have  required an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. However over the past few years, the cost of 3D printers has dropped steeply in price, with simple models now being made available for a few thousand dollars. As a result, total sales of 3D printers are on track to be worth $5 billion by 2017, according to the Consumer Electronics Association’s report, Five Technology Trends to Watch.

Power to the people

There is much hype surrounding the notion that 3D printers will eventually become an essential apparatus for printing out replacement parts, handy objects and even complete products, designed to use around the home.

Online communities such as Thingiverse and Shapeways for example, are already popping up and offering consumers a digital collection of objects that can be downloaded and printed on a personal 3D printer. These communities contain thousands of free designs ranging across art, fashion, games, gadgets and home categories. Designs include drink holders, phone cases, jewellery, lens caps, figurines, and miniature instruments.

In addition, 3D printing also places the end-consumer at the centre of product design. Aided by advancing 3D printing technology, it is expected that mass production will increasingly give way to mass-customisation across many product categories including shoes, toys, home wares, mobile phones, accessories and even, furniture. This particular opportunity is one that excites many  retailers; none more so than CEO of online retail giant, Jeff Bezos, who believes that 3D printing will change the e-commerce game.

Commercialising 3D printing technology

In a commercial sense, 3D printing technology is enabling the rapid rise of on-demand manufacturing, while also offering a highly customisable and adaptable business model for designing, modelling, producing and selling manufactured goods.

One obvious sector set to benefit from this advancement is retail. As 3D printing allows for products to be printed on-demand, without the need for inventory to be held in stock, it has the power to truly revolutionise the traditional retail model. The on-demand nature of 3D printing presents retailers with a potent solution to inventory management challenges, as their products – particularly those that sell in smaller quantities – no longer need to be purchased from factories in advance and stored in warehouses.

As 3D printing makes it equally as cost effective to produce a single item, as a posed to manufacturing thousands of products, it offers businesses greater flexibility and savings, as well as reducing the importance of economies of scale. As an example, various organisations within the healthcare sector are already using 3D printing technologies to construct customised hearing aid cases, dental crowns, prosthetics limbs and even personalised hip replacements that meet the precise, individual needs of the end user.

For the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company – the parent company of Airbus – 3D printing represents the opportunity for significantly cheaper manufacturing when compared with traditional manufacturing. The company is currently looking at using 3D printing to build an entire plane and views this new technology as a way to improve its efficiencies in terms of producing lighter and far more complex aircraft designs.

Sustainability is another potential benefit offered by 3D printing technology.If the uptake of 3D printing technologies grows in local markets, it is likely to reduce the reliance on the major worldwide manufacturing hubs and eliminate the carbon footprint for many manufactured goods. 3D printing is said to require as a little as 10% of the amount of material needed in conventional manufacturing, highlighting the power this trend has to significantly reduce industrial waste.

How do you predict 3D printing technology will impact your industry?



John Riccio

John is a former partner at PwC Australia and the founder of Digital Pulse.

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