For the last decade, 3D printing has been the playground of the maker community, while commercial applications have been limited to prototyping. But now, industrial 3D printing has reached its tipping point, and is about to go mainstream in a way that will revolutionize the economy.
3D production of functional end-use parts is already one of the fastest growing areas in the manufacturing sector. In 2014, a PWC survey found that 11% of manufacturing companies had already switched to volume production of 3D printed parts or products. As costs continue to drop and quality rises, it will be impossible to put this genie back in the bottle.
Here are seven ways that 3D printing production is already in use today and disrupting business as we know it.
1. True Rapid Prototyping. 3D printing has been used for nearly 20 years to create physical replicas of new part or product designs. Often referred to as rapid prototyping, this process has typically been anything but rapid, with service providers often taking a week or more to deliver a single piece. But recent breakthroughs in automation coupled with the entry of global distribution companies like UPS have changed everything, in some cases leading to same-day production and shipping. These changes are dramatically collapsing design cycles. A product that would need a month to go through three or four design changes in the prototyping phase now takes a week. Products are getting to market faster, and companies are saving significant time and money.
2. Rapid Design Iteration (A/B testing of physical products). 3D printing has moved beyond prototyping into first-run production, allowing for true market testing and rapid design iteration. Witness Ford: For most of the company’s existence, engineers had to create a brand new mold if they wanted to test a prototype engine. The process would typically take six months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, Ford is 3D-printing these molds in four days at a cost of $4,000. Taking advantage of this enormous reduction in time and cost, Ford recently decided to make not just a single engine prototype for a new car, but numerous versions to be tested simultaneously. No longer bound by the constraints of the old industrial process, engineers can explore dozens of variations and rigorously test them all, fine-tuning the engine’s performance.
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The result of advances in 3D printing production will be an eventual blurring of the lines between prototype and product. Smaller companies will reap great benefit from this technology, introducing innovative products without huge inventory expense. Multiple versions of industrial parts or even consumer goods can be tested for use in the marketplace—the ultimate focus group. The sort of A/B testing that is constantly done in the digital world is now possible in the physical world.
3. Low volume production. With conventional manufacturing, a company has to commit to creating tooling or molds before a single end use part can be produced. If creating a mold costs $50,000 and each incremental part costs $.50, then the very first part will cost $50,000.50! This works out fine if you are producing millions of parts. But what if you only need 500? With 3D printing, there are no set-up costs whatsoever.
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