3-D printing has long shown promise, but it still has yet to gain deep manufacturing market penetration. Throughout the manufacturing value chain, there are many use cases where 3-D printing can be used, but the reality is that very few manufacturers are leveraging 3-D printing in any significant way.
In looking at the manufacturing value chain, one sees the places where it is currently gaining adoption and areas where strong possibilities exist, but most current solutions do not meet the necessary speed, cost and quality standards necessary for broad adoption.
Design and Prototyping
The first step in the product development lifecycle, Design and Prototyping, is to determine customer requirements and test ideas with customers. We sometimes use focus groups to determine if the characteristics of the product will meet the basic customer requirements. With 3-D printing, product designers are able to generate functional, real prototypes to be used in testing new designs, while giving test subjects the ability to touch, feel, and work with the proposed designs.
This provides significant advantage over early user testing approaches, which rely solely on graphic designs on computer screens or pictures. In fact, product designers can leverage 3-D printing and its quick turnaround to produce a prototype, gather feedback, incorporate that feedback into a new design, print that new prototype, and gather feedback on the same day — something that was never possible with traditional prototyping methods. The iteration cycles are cut from weeks to days, or even hours, with 3-D printing. However, because of the limitations in easy-to-use materials in the traditional 3-D printing universe, even these design prototypes can have limitations in their realistic portrayal of the proposed end product.
There has been solid progress in using 3-D printing in the engineering process, particularly for functional prototyping. Its ease of use, instant feedback, and price competitiveness compared to the cost of tooling for making one-off prototypes is a clear-cut winner, and many firms have jumped on integrating 3-D printing capabilities into their engineering processes.
Design engineers across the globe are discovering the benefits of being able to design a part, 3-D print it immediately, and see, touch, and experiment with the result. A process that historically could take months (involving design, tooling, production, review and iteration of the design), can now be done in one day — at a much lower cost. Iterations that typically take several months can now be done in days. In fact, many designs that would have never even been pursued due to the high cost of validating them are now able to be implemented, tested, and verified. This capability has spawned a new era of speed to market for manufacturers, as well as great design improvements that may have never seen the light of day using traditional engineering processes.
As you move to full-scale manufacturing, the challenges of being able to achieve the economies necessary for large-scale manufacturing become quickly apparent, with typical printing speeds and materials being marginal at best, yielding a questionable return on investment. Traditional 3-D printers are limited in speed when compared to standard manufacturing processes.
When you are looking at a large-run production involving thousands of parts, the speed of typical 3-D printers limits its applicability. In addition, material cost becomes a larger issue, due to the way materials such as powders, wires or other proprietary formats must be delivered for 3-D printing applications, since they are typically only available from the manufacturer of the 3-D printer itself. The evolution of new material markets increases availability and brings down costs, while manufacturers taking advantage of automated 3-D printing solutions are able to easily integrate into a large-scale assembly line.
Short-Run and Spare Parts
The innovators in manufacturing are using 3-D printing for short-run production needs, low-usage replacement parts or other areas where large-scale production is not necessary. Here, the relative cost of tooling and casting for short production runs makes even today’s 3-D printers and materials relatively cost effective. In addition, it provides key inventory benefits by reducing inventory carrying cost, as these parts and short-runs can be produced to order, rather than incurring large setup costs and needing to hold inventory to satisfy what can be significantly unknown and volatile demand.
Materials: The Market Opportunity
A key constraint on market penetration into mainstream mass manufacturing is the cost and availability of certified, brand-name materials. Metal 3-D printing requires expensive, hard-to-handle powders, with significant waste and tough environmental constraints. Most plastics are proprietary to the specific 3-D printer manufacturer and are only available at high markup from the printer manufacturer itself. Materials are actually a key profit mechanism for the 3-D printer manufacturers — think of the old razors and razor blade model — so prices are inflated and not competitive, and manufacturers historically have had no alternative, other than the limited portfolio of materials available directly from the 3-D printer company.
In any market, the key to wide adoption is an open, competitive market. Competition drives innovation and decreases prices, which then leads to broader market adoption. 3-D printer manufacturers are beginning to address the current adoption bottleneck by opening the market for materials that are compatible with their 3-D printer technology. They are able to do this by putting a greater focus on partnering with material developers to test, certify, and supply materials that are compatible with their printers. These partnerships are ongoing and include regular certification to ensure that there is no degradation in quality of the materials over time.
Possibly most important, sales of the materials must be easily available to users and pricing must be transparent. Transparent pricing will start to drive down cost, which will increase adoption as the investment cost decreases and ROI increases. As adoption increases, economies of scale can take over to further drive cost down, and the virtuous cycle can feed itself and get 3-D printing past the trough of disillusionment (where many experts believe it is today) and into the slope of enlightenment. (See the Gartner Hype Cycle if you are not familiar with these references.)
Ultimately, the dream scenario is moving to an open, online market where users can pick among numerous materials from multiple name-brand material manufacturers, who are competing on quality, price, and service, rather than the traditional environment where the manufacturer has selected a 3-D printer and it is bound to material supply defined and managed by the 3-D printer supplier.
As this type of market evolves, we will have the appropriate forces in place to drive down cost and increase quality. When combined with automation features to enable easy integration into automated assembly line processes, additive manufacturing can become a viable alternative for large scale manufacturing, and a new era will flourish for the manufacturing value chain.
AJ Perez is chairman and president of NVBOTS, and leads business activities at NVLabs. He is an expert in manufacturing process automation and additive manufacturing, and has taught graduate-level courses in 3-D printing at MIT. AJ has patents in a variety of areas including robotics, additive manufacturing, and instrument design. He received the Lemelon-MIT prize and Jerome Lemelson fellowship in recognition of his inventions, and has been named a Boston Globe Hive “25 under 25”. He holds a master’s in advanced manufacturing and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT.