The future is in 3D

Posted on 5 Nov 2014 by Victoria Fitzgerald

Stephen Cooper of KPMG weighs in on the phenomenon of 3D printing as the firm cites it as one of its ten megatrends identified for the future of manufacturing.

Sometimes the future is closer than we think.  Futuristic concepts seem to make their way into reality faster and faster these days.

There was a lot of publicity for example around Amazon’s announcement that it was planning to trial deliveries by unmanned drones.  But the use of drones is already here in the manufacturing sector.  Some companies are using drones to help carry out their stock takes.  By getting the drones to fly around in the warehouse taking photos, there is no longer a need to physically bring everything down to be counted – saving both time and money.

Another space-age sounding piece of technology that is in fact already here – and which I believe will have an enormous effect on the industry – is 3D printing.  It’s one of ten ‘mega-trends’ that we at KPMG have identified for the future of manufacturing.

Whilst discussion of 3D printing has grown over the last few years, many people probably still regard it as a fringe activity, something slightly wacky that will “never really take off”.

But the fact is, it already has.  Already the 3D printing market is worth something over $2bn a year according to some estimates – and is expected to grow at somewhere approaching 20% per annum over the coming years.  The introduction of more reliable systems and advances in material properties has made it possible to use 3D printers for producing fully scaled parts for end use such as homes.

In addition, easier to use and freely available 3D CAD software combined with a developing content library makes it attractive for non-commercial users too.  The CAD software market is now worth an estimated $9bn.

Did you know that a new model of US aircraft carrier (the Gerald R. Ford) was completely designed using a 3D product model and that every part was designed as a 3D model at full scale?

A number of automotive manufacturers are already using 3D printing to produce parts such as intake manifolds and cylinder heads.  Toys such as action figures and custom dolls are often 3D printed now.  The aerospace sector, the dental and medical industries (even including body parts), tool and mould production – the technology is being used across all of these.

This is only the beginning, and I believe it will rapidly spread.  And just as it spelt trouble for printing shops when ‘old-fashioned’ inkjet or laser printers became widespread, so the take-off of 3D printing will have major ramifications for many different players in industry.

Additive processes (3D printing) will substitute to a certain degree other processing technologies and lead to a redesign of the entire supply and value chains of certain industries.  Small, flexible and specialised 3D manufacturing units – so called ‘fabbing companies’ – will enter the market.  Low-volume, high-value, tool-free production and a low fixed cost will lower the market entry risk for new competitors.

With labour accounting for a smaller proportion of manufacturing costs, the cost advantages of producing in low cost countries will decrease, and we will see more repatriation of production to countries of origin (back-sourcing).

Meanwhile, there will be major implications for the logistics industry, as the ability to print your own parts – both commercially and, eventually, by the end customer at home – will impact dramatically on the need for deliveries in certain industries.

So, if you’ve been thinking about 3D printing as something that doesn’t apply to you – think again.  It’s here and it’s growing.  It’s going to revolutionise manufacturing processes.  Think about how it could apply to your business and start now to look at where it could be integrated into your existing supply chain.

In short, get ready for the future – because it’s already arrived.