Bloggers, techies, and industrial innovators in the know seem to have settled on one theme for this year: additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3-D printing. Many have called 2012 "the year of 3-D printing" and expect this 30-year-old technology to break into the mainstream market soon with new industrial viability.
This may have begun at a November 2011 TED Talk where Lisa Harouni, CEO of Digital Forming, gave a now viral speech touting recent advances to the 3-D printing landscape.
She concluded with a bold prediction: "Without a doubt in my mind, I believe that this technology is going to cause a manufacturing revolution and will change the landscape of manufacturing as we know it."
Whether this "revolution" has started is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that developments to the technology have allowed 3-D printers to begin actively saving companies time and money while shortening product-to-market timetables and increasing customization capabilities.
The additive manufacturing process is quite literally 3-D printing, explained Frank Marangell, president of Israel-based Objet Technologies.
"We take a 3-D design of a product... then we slice it up and print it layer by layer," he said. "We print it like ink on a page, but we print it 2,000 times per inch."
Using materials anywhere from plastic to medical-grade titanium to human cells, printers can create intricate, 3-D products and items with far greater variety than possible through traditional means.
This leads to one of the early draws to 3-D printing: its ability to allow designers to customize products to exact customer specifications. This can mean significant changes to the overall market, said Harouni.
"What interests my company the most is the fact that you can create individual, unique products en masse," she said. "There's no need to do a run of thousands of millions or send that product to be injection molded in China. You can just make it physically on the spot. Which means that we can now present to the public the next generation of customization. This is something that is now possible today, that you can direct personally how you want your products to look."
This presents the opportunity for discrete manufacturers to fundamentally alter the consumers' experiences, said Harouni. Far more than the "variant production" options offered by brands like Nike, she said, "what you could do is really influence your product now and shape-manipulate your product."
The key to Apple's success, said Objet's Marangell, is its ability to create a direct link between product and design.
"Apple says it best when they say it's all about the design," he said. "They talk about rapid prototyping as the thing they do right from the napkin." 3-D printing technologies allow this to happen.
With it, "very early in the process, designers have a physical object to work with," he said. As a result, they are able to spend more time with the product in-hand for modifications, redesigns and testing.
The advantage of this is great, he said. "If you are able to improve your design early, you can get to the market sooner... with a much better design."
His favorite example of this is with the case of New Balance Shoes.
"I always thought they were just a shoe company," he said, "but they're a fashion company. The changes and the sensitivity of that market are so quick that they have shows every month and they have to have new products for every show."
This means that to serve their customers and stay on top of industry trends, the company must design and manufacture completely new product lines every month. Each item in these lines requires customized components that traditionally took months to produce.
Now, Marangell explained, the shoes they are showing have "rubber soles that may have been designed and printed yesterday." There is simply no other way to meet these demands than 3-D printing, he said.
"When you think about traditional manufacturing," said Marangell, "you have to think about all the tooling upfront [as well as] the transportation, the storage, the inventory. Time is a big factor. You don't even think about the inefficiencies of the process."
Additive manufacturing changes this model, opening the door for new processes and new efficiencies across the manufacturing process.
For example, he noted that the long design process of custom tooling has been replaced with a totally in-house process taking hours or days rather than weeks or months. With a 3-D printer, companies "can create the tooling before you even have the product," he said.
"In the morning you print your the tooling... and then take them on the product floor to test them [that afternoon]," he said. "Even if it takes ten hours [to print], it's a huge savings."
There are also supply chain efficiencies to consider, added Harouni. "Now instead of shipping a product across the world, we're sending data across the Internet. Rather than orders being manufactured in remote plants, the product data "gets sent to a local manufacturing center [to be produced and shipped locally]. This means lower carbon footprint."
In the end, the mainstream viability and the mainstream adoption of this technology has yet to be explored. The stage is set, however, for the potential "revolution" Harouni predicted. We will just have to wait and see how it plays out this year.