3D printing – friend or foe?

Posted on 25 Nov 2013 by The Manufacturer

Antony Bourne of ERP vendor IFS discusses the pros and cons of the 3D printing revolution.

Antony Bourne, IFS

Shipments of 3D Printers will skyrocket in 2014, according to industry analysts Gartner’s latest report. Sales will increase by 75 per cent, with close to 100,000 units in operation worldwide, before nearly doubling again in 2015. There’s no doubt that it’s an exciting trend, but 3D printing presents a significant challenge to the industry as we know it and could change how manufacturers operate forever.

3D printing is set to revolutionise the prototyping stage of development by greatly reducing associated costs and increasing the ease with which we can make tiny tweaks to our products. The potential is huge, and as of yet we’ve only really scratched the surface of what it can offer – the real benefits and opportunities will become apparent as this new technique permeates into wider parts of the business, going beyond prototyping and becoming an integral part of operations.

The impact of change

How will your CFO react if you tell them you can reduce your inventory holding by 25 per cent, simply by replacing easily replicated stock with a 3D printer in the warehouse? And imagine if equipment manufacturers could ship their machines with a 3D printer so that spares could be printed out on-site instead of being ordered and delivered. Rather than calling up the manufacturer and waiting for parts to arrive, users could pay for a digital download of a blueprint for the desired part, effectively eliminating large parts of the supply chain.

This scenario also offers an opportunity for manufacturers to operate as a service. Traditionally, cheaper maintenance services are provided by a separate company to the one that originally manufactured the product, but providing downloadable blueprints would be a relatively small step for manufacturers to take – and one with a significant return on investment.

And that’s without considering the positive environmental impact 3D printing could have – something I don’t believe has been fully considered yet. At the most basic level, just think of all the road and air miles that would no longer be needed if we allowed equipment owners to print their own replacement parts.

Manufacturing’s silver bullet?

But that’s not to say 3D printing is some sort of silver bullet for the manufacturing industry. We’re a traditionally slow-moving bunch, so there’s always an element of fear associated with anything described as a ‘new industrial revolution’ – and this one is no different, because 3D printing also has the potential to revolutionise the way we work in other, less favourable ways.

Media coverage of 3D printing rocketed back in May when the first working gun was printed by Defense Distributed, an American company. Despite the ethical implications which caused uproar amongst members of the public, this was also a significant moment for manufacturers. If it’s so simple to design and manufacture a gun – something only specially trained individuals or complex machinery could previously produce – what’s likely to happen down the line?

Will people be able to print their own cars? Their own houses? Those may seem extreme examples but the possibilities truly are endless, and there’s a real risk that the need for traditional manufacturing processes will one day disappear. Operating as a service is therefore an important step to take, ensuring that manufacturers remain useful, profitable and in-demand despite an inevitable dip in their physical offering.

Intellectual property

The other big issue, highlighted at a recent Gartner Symposium in Florida, is that of protecting your intellectual property (IP) rights. Gartner predicts that, by 2018, at least $100bn (just over £62bn) will be lost in IP globally every year. They also say that at least one major western manufacturer will claim to have had its IP stolen by thieves using 3D printers by 2015 – and, in contrast to the IP struggles we see today, those thieves will likely live in the same western markets, not Asia.

Stealing IP has in the past been a difficult thing, with sophisticated espionage and a lot of planning needed on the thief’s part, but 3D printing could make this a lot easier. It might not be long before anyone, anywhere in the world can print items that you have spent many years and many pounds developing. The emergence of a fully fledged black market for blueprints is not unrealistic – will manufacturing suffer from illegal downloads in the same way the music and film industries have?

Like so many technological advances over the years – think nuclear power versus nuclear warheads – this one has the potential to either revitalise or devastate the manufacturing industry. Governing bodies and regulators need to ensure the proper legislation and protection for manufacturers is in place right now, so that we’re in the best possible shape to harness its power for good as soon as 3D printing really takes off.