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Three-dimensional (3D) printers make finished products with one process. Driven by a digital blueprint, they build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal or other materials.

Most products result from many manufacturing steps performed by different machines, each with its own operator. Each machine and operator executes a certain job — such as cutting, drilling or milling — and passes the part to another machine and operator that perform another job. This process continues along an assembly line until the part is complete. Eventually, all the parts are assembled into a final product, either by machine or by hand. 3D printing replaces all these steps with fundamentally different machines and materials that simplify manufacturing.

Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production and its economies of scale and low labor costs, which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors. 3D printing eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product fully assembled, and one operator can manage an entire roomful of 3D printers.

As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, democratizing manufacturing. Also, it is no more expensive per part to 3D print one part versus a million parts, or to customize every part instead of making them the same. A uniform price to produce highly complex parts also eliminates the need for economies of scale and low labor costs.

This means there is no advantage and maybe no need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, so thousands of 3D printing fabricators can start up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.

Massive factories are not good at mass customization. They are good at shipping a million of the same part to a few locations but not shipping a million customized parts to a million different locations.

The disruption checklist

Certain elements need to fall in place for a 3D printing revolution to start. On the industrial side, two things must trigger the disruption of any existing product-based market:

The ability to build large things, creating the need for 3D printers with large build platforms
The ability to make either single items quickly or many items simultaneously — creating the need for speed or scale of production

On both the home and industrial sides, some additional requirements are necessary for market disruption:

Advanced materials (including materials that may not exist) to enable the efficient printing of complex structures
The ability to print complex, integrated structures, such as smartphones and blenders
The ability to print very small things, such as the integrated circuitry of computer chips
Hybrid machines that can perform the processes that today’s 3D printers cannot
Innovators, especially the innovators of the future — namely, young people who grow up with 3D printing

Improvement to incremental cost calculations

While the initial cost of a 3D printer could be upwards of a million dollars, the technology has the potential to substantially reduce incremental unit costs for a manufacturer. There is a considerable chance that a part made on a 3D printer could cost far less than one completed through traditional manufacturing processes.

Eventually, the industry may reach a tipping point where the fully allocated costs associated with 3D printing will fall well below the traditional manufacturing process — even with the upfront investment in the printers themselves. If that’s the case, then it is likely we will see a complete shift in the way industrial manufacturing is done.

Assembly line and pricing strategy transformation

During the manufacturing process, sales teams must work very closely with the production teams to make sure all delivery dates are met and the customer is kept happy from point of sale through production and delivery. In a traditional assembly line process for engineered-to-order products for instance, the tools and material must be changed out for each individual job and reprogrammed for each customer and product. With 3D printing, the production team is given greater flexibility since assembly is a single operation and set up time is reduced to nearly zero. Due to flexibility in this new assembly line process, sales reps would be able to push orders through faster and in a greater capacity, since they are fulfilled almost immediately without waiting for optimal production windows which can accommodate the particular tooling or material used for each order. Additionally, the manufacturing process can be done at a lower cost and every order can be treated like a rush order with shorter production time.

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On the other hand, shorter production time and lower overhead costs to the manufacturer doesn’t mean that companies will no longer be able to collect value out of a strategic pricing process. Companies may still be able to charge the same price and even enjoy an increased margin rate due to the specificity and uniqueness of products available via 3D-printing processes. Because the manufacturers’ costs are less, they can decide how much of that cost savings to pass along as a price reduction to customers in order to secure business and keep it out of the hands of competition, or how much to keep in their pockets as increased profits.



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