3D printing and the “next industrial revolution”
Lots of pundits and bloggers have forecast that manufacturing, as we know it today, will be forever altered, perhaps even eliminated, because of 3D printing technology.
Maybe. I’ve covered the manufacturing industry for more than 20 years. While it has undergone many changes during that time, traditional manufacturing will not go away anytime soon.
But Anderson makes a few interesting observations about 3D printing’s potential impact on manufacturing. A key development, for him, is that this technology allows nearly anyone to become a manufacturer, whether for fun or profit. Will that irrevocably change manufacturing? Will we see fewer items produced by the major manufacturers because individuals are producing their own stuff? Will individual manufacturers take up the production of millions of manufactured products (for the world market), and thereby eliminate traditional manufacturing? We’ll see.
Two key points Anderson made that I do think will alter manufacturing are these:
1. Both mass and custom are now viable automated manufacturing methods. This is a key development. Custom has always been desired but way too expensive, which is why mass manufacturing came about. Now, however, manufacturers have the option of delivering both custom and mass produced at affordable prices. This is a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario.
2. With the ability to affordably make custom parts, it’s time to reexamine what products, designs, tools, and so on should be produced in quantities that number in the hundreds of thousands. With additive manufacturing technology, you no longer need to face the limitation that you must produce large quantities to recoup your investment. This development will save a lot of money through less waste alone. It will also open up opportunities unavailable before because of the requirement for mass production.
The aerospace and luxury automotive markets are already taking advantage of this benefit. For example, some brand manufacturers produce just a few thousand cars. Increasingly, they are using 3D printing technology to produce the small numbers of certain parts, trim, and tooling economically.
3D printing can’t do everything, so it is a bit idealistic to think it will eliminate traditional manufacturing technologies. I think 3D printing technology will truly be additive in that it will be an addition to other manufacturing methods and process.