The revolution will be additivised

Posted on 21 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

Additive manufacturing is fast becoming commonplace in manufacturing. With the capabilities of ‘3D printers’ growing at an astonishing rate and the price of them decreasing rapidly, some are predicting a revolution comparable to that brought about by the invention of the printing press or the steam engine.

The extraordinary growth in the use of additive manufacturing (AM) is widely documented among those in the manufacturing industry, but figures outside the industry are starting to take a great deal more notice too. Writing for in May this year, Doug Smock reported that the “compound annual growth rate of revenues produced by all additive manufacturing products and services in 2010 was 24.1%.” Data gathered from the same source (the 2011 Wohlers reports) showed that the compound annual growth rate for the industry’s 23-year history is an impressive 26.2%.

Tim Caffrey, associate consultant at Wohlers Associates, said to after the release of the report that he expected industry-wide growth to be $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

Some commentators have drawn attention to the potential pitfalls of AM. In an age where digital piracy arguably occurs at the same rate as the number of births on a global scale, being able to print out a physical item without even having to design it seems like a huge problem. Those manufacturers already concerned about their Intellectual Property (IP) now have much more to be worried about. The fact that such 3D printers are now cheap enough for people to buy and install at home will have a huge effect not just on the way manufacturers work, but how the economy as a whole will work.

A basic 3D printer costs about the same as a laser printer did in the mid-1980s. This huge accessibility could have massive repercussions for companies that manufacture large amounts of components for themselves or customers. For example, someone who needed a spare part for their SmartPhone, say a new case could print one out not just for themselves, but for anyone else who would be willing to pay for one. The only information that person would need would be the ‘blueprint’ for the new case. Just as DVD and music piracy is so prevalent today, this kind of problem could become similarly acute. After reading estimations from Wohler Associates, one is moved to believe that it will be. Just as the music and film industry has had to make drastic changes to the way they market and sell material because of the advance of the internet, it’s possible that manufacturers will have to change their approach too.

The Economist released an article this month commenting on the shock factor AM could potentially bring to manufacturers in developed and developing countries, be they ultra-small local companies or gargantuan multinationals. The effects of these 3D printers, or ‘fabbers’, are thought to be extremely widespread. First of all, the fact that it is so cheap means that innovation could be increased on an enormous scale. It would no longer be limited to companies with deep pockets dedicated to R&D. Also notable is the fact that you can modify the object after just printing one; meaning that designers with little cash would no longer be afraid of seeing what an object performs like and then changing one small part of that object.

Some believe that AM will completely decentralise the business of manufacturing. The Economist commented on the fact that some experts have argued that the technology will end up “reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation,” and that there “will be no need for factories … when every village has a fabricator that can produce items when needed.”

Whatever effects AM has on manufacturing, they are likely to be wide-ranging and far-reaching. Perhaps a complete reversal of urbanisation mentioned in The Economist is slightly far-fetched, though.