Additive manufacturing has reached a tipping point, with big opportunities in innovative product design and functionality, not just cost reduction. Although additive manufacturing, often called 3-D printing, accounts for just more than 0.3% of the $10 trillion global manufacturing market, companies ranging from dental implant makers and automotive manufacturers to aerospace and defense firms now use this method to make prototypes and fully functional components.

What sets additive manufacturing apart is the ability to create almost any shape or structure with no geometric constraints and at little marginal cost. In fact, building certain structures — such as those resembling bamboo, lattice or trabeculae (thin columns of bone) — simply is not feasible with traditional manufacturing. And AM’s flexibility comes without the penalty of inefficiency, as additive manufacturing machines have a short setup time and lend themselves to just-in-time production and low inventories.

This characteristic of “complexity for free” leads to a potential cost advantage in manufacturing complex parts, particularly for small parts produced in low volumes. Designers can focus on improving a product’s functionality and not worry as much about the manufacturability of the part.

A higher-performing part, in turn, can reduce customers’ total cost of ownership, meriting a higher price for the part itself. The size of the potential benefits depends on the specific application. For example, Airbus and EOS, a leading additive manufacturing systems manufacturer, analyzed a housing hinge bracket of an A320 aircraft and redesigned it using additive manufacturing. The new bracket may reduce the weight of an aircraft by more than 20 pounds, resulting in 40% reduction of both fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions related to that component over its life cycle, with consequent benefits for operating costs and the environment.

The global additive manufacturing market has experienced double-digit growth over the past five years, and an expert consensus expects a similar growth rate over the next five years, to pass $12 billion in 2018.

The speed of adoption will depend on how quickly companies can overcome barriers such as high production costs, inadequate levels of tolerance and surface finish, lack of uniform design and manufacturing guidelines, and a scarcity of talent. If manufacturing history serves as a guide, these barriers will crumble as customers demand better AM systems for lower price, as suppliers innovate affordable solutions, and as patents expire. When these events happen, the full power of 3-D printing will reshape competitive advantage in many industries.  

For CEOs and COOs, then, it’s time to map out the appropriate role for 3-D printing in their firms. This will involve determining where in the business 3-D printing will add the most value and how the organization would have to adapt to realize that value. To identify and understand the most promising opportunities, and to build a lead over competitors, senior executives should address a set of key strategic questions: