Could 3D printing change your business?

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Could 3D printing change your business?

3D printing refers to the process used to create a three-dimensional object by adding layers on top of one another. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing builds an object from a computer aided design model by successively adding material layer by layer.

Printing materials are becoming more sophisticated and now include everything from edible materials and human tissue to more standard production material like plastics, rubber, metal and plaster. The potential impact of 3D printing means that companies will be able to manufacture low-volume, complex objects without the costs that only large scale manufacturers can currently afford.

However, there are certainly drawbacks with the current technology that make it difficult for small businesses to enter the market of 3D manufacturing. This could mean that it may be some time before wide-scale adoption of 3D technology becomes the norm.

Positives

Low volume
In 3D print there is no need to create moulds for the product which makes the possibility of low volume production easier. Printing has become the most efficient way to produce one-off prototypes at low cost, as it is easier to tweak or edit a 3D printer’s software than resetting tools in a factory or rebuilding a mould[1]. This will be beneficial for smaller companies who have the ability to make innovative products without huge production expense.

Unique products
Similarly, customisation for singular products will also be much more readily available. One of the most exciting areas that this is being used for is manufacturing in healthcare. For example, the current procedure for replacement of a knee joint would be choosing the best match available out of a choice of approximately 5 existing products. 3D printing makes it possible to scan your knee and produce an exact replica as a replacement.

3D printed dental crowns, hearing aids and even skin[2] are quickly becoming the best choice for surgery. The same process can be utilised for singular parts of expensive machinery such as aircraft or motor racing.

Self sufficiency
As 3D printers become more readily available and cheaper to purchase, manufacturers may depend less on their supply chain. 3D printers will mean that businesses can print supplies for themselves, reducing the reliance on distant suppliers for their business to run.

Negatives

Time scales
Currently, the market argues that 3D printers are too slow and too expensive to be effective. It can currently take up to two days to produce a highly complex object. Others argue that mass manufacturing would be impossible from 3D printing, meaning that it will never be the preferred choice for large-scale manufacturers.

Set up costs
While there are benefits to lower cost of production, that is not to forget the outset costs of purchasing a 3D printer, which can run up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. After initial purchase, you still have to purchase the material that you wish to print in. While this is beneficial to highly complex, unique products; it is not cost effective for large-scale products that already exist in the market for cheaper.

Legislation
There is currently no legislation guarding 3D printing. This means that anyone with access to a 3D printer can produce almost anything. A prominent example of this was a CAD file for a 3D printable version of a working gun, which was downloaded by more than 100k people before it was removed from the site[3]. 3D printing makes it possible to easily produce banned products.

Product Liability
There will almost certainly be supply chain issues which arise from 3D manufacturing. There will be questions raised over who could be liable for a defective 3D-printed product when you take into account the different steps that can go wrong in the process: design file, the printer, human error, processing plant, etc.

The 3D manufacturing market is not yet regulated. This creates a chance that compromised parts could enter supply chains thanks to human error with CAD files or problems with machines. With no checks, these products could infiltrate the market and jeopardise other products in the supply chain.

While it is possible that 3D manufacturing has the potential to revolutionise the way that smaller products are developed, due to various restrictions, it may be that 3D print will never be able to fully disrupt the traditional manufacturing process. It could be that it will only ever be useful for businesses that make highly complex products like engineering, medicine and biotechnology that will be able to utilise it for their benefit[4].

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[1] https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21724397-sceptics-doubt-technology-can-be-used-mass-production-just-wait-3d-printers-will-change

[2] http://www.allure.com/story/3d-printing-skin

[3] http://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-dark-side-of-3d-printing-10-things-to-watch/

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ricksmith/2015/06/29/7-ways-3d-printing-is-already-disrupting-global-manufacturing/#290570b91c0f

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Marketing professional with two years’ experience, who enjoys creating useful and relevant business content.