by Dr Joshua Fan, PSB Academy visiting lecturer, Academic Director (Offshore Postgraduate),
Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong
3D printing has the potential to revolutionise how we make anything. The biggest impact of 3D printing is in our ability to manufacture items in small runs. This has implications in product development, customisation, and most importantly, for manufacturers, as it allows for faster time-to-market. In the healthcare industry, for example, it allows for the customisation of implants, hearing aids, medications, tissue and bone engineering, among others, and it is currently becoming more popular as the technology matures and awareness of its benefits grows.
Still at its infancy
While the origins of 3D printing can be traced to as far back as 1986, there is limited supply chain literature on this technology. With supply chain literature being dominated by the sciences (e.g. medical), technical/engineering research is still very much focused on its manufacturing implications and not how 3D printing will impact broader supply chain processes.
While 3D printing technology has been in exploration and experimental stage for quite sometime, only recently the technology has received wider acceptance because of the maturity and affordability of the technology. This in part is due to the advancement in various technologies, like communication, internet, sensor, high definition camera, precision, nano, laser guided, and autonomous technology using artificial intelligence.
But with the rapid adoption of the 3D printing technology outside the design engineering/manufacturing sector, the technology is being slowly adopted by other industries to explore the viability for various applications in these industries.
Due to this, we may now see more discussions on how the 3D printing technology (economy of one) challenges the more traditional approach on supply chain management, which has been focusing on economy of scale.
The evolution of 3D printers
One of the major drawbacks of 3D printing is that it can take a long time to produce one product, depending on the number of layers to be printed. However, there are signs showing that this challenge may be eliminated in the near future.
In fact, experts believe that it may soon be used beyond simply rapid prototyping. Incremental improvements on 3D printing are underway, which have the potential for an order of magnitude change that will help printers meet the demand for greater speed.
For example, most of today’s printers use a single printhead to deposit material. Adding more printheads that print at the same time can increase speed by depositing materials faster while incorporating multiple materials or multiple colours of the same material. In addition, today’s 3D printers are concentrated at two ends of a spectrum: high cost–high capability and low cost–low capability. High-end printers are generally targeted at enterprises and low-end printers are targeted at consumers and hobbyists.
During the past year, a new class of printers in the middle has emerged. These printers from new entrants and established vendors have many of the higher-end capabilities at lower prices. Gartner predicts that soon 3D printers with the value (capabilities and performance) that is demanded by businesses and other organisations will be available for less than US$1,000 by 2016.
It is fair to expect that printer improvements will accelerate in the next few years, although the degree and nature of these changes will vary considerably across printing technologies and vendors.
More than just a manufacturing tool
Experts believe that the mass scale adoption of 3D printing will create waves across the whole supply chain. For example, 3D printing finds its value in the printing of low volume, customer-specific items, which includes hollow structures like GE’s fuel nozzles that would normally be manufactured in pieces for later assembly.
This at once eliminates the need for both high volume production facilities and low level assembly workers, thereby cutting out at least half of the supply chain in a single blow. In Hong Kong, the fashion industry has started using 3D printing to design and print garments and shoes uniquely designed for fashion conscious customers.
A number of shops are already using 3D printers to produce custom-made embroidered handbags. In other parts of the world, designers from the US, Europe and Asia showcased their 3D-printed fashion designs at the Platform Fashion show in Germany. In addition, China and Hong Kong textiles manufacturers are looking at 3D printed textiles as an alternative to knitting and fabrics weaving.
Our food may even be 3D printed in the future. NASA is exploring 3D printing of food in space, and recently, a 3D-printing pop-up restaurant, called “Food Ink”, has opened in London. This unique experience allows customers to choose from a selection of 3D-printed food items by the British tech company.
3D printing is an exciting move for the food and technology world. While the concept may be strange now, by 2030, there will be an increased acceptance of 3D printed food. Afterall, pharmaceutical companies, like Pfizer and Bayer, are already looking at 3D printers to produce drugs and medicines at local pharmacy rather than producing the drugs and medicines in their manufacturing facilities. This will reduce on shelf inventory and also reduce wastage due to expiration date. Experts believe that 3D printed pharmaceutical drugs will be mainstream within 10 years.
The future of 3D printing
The 3D printing industry will reach US$7.3bn. By 2020, it is expected to grow to US$21bn. Canalys, a global technology market analyst firm, anticipates changes ahead and predicts that the global market for 3D printers and services will grow from US$2.5bn in 2013 to US$16.2bn in 2018, at CAGR of 45.7 per cent. The rest of the growth comes from the secondary market, including tooling, molding and castings.
Western countries (North America and Europe) account for more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of the 3D printing market revenue while Asia Pacific accounts for 27 per cent.
About the Author
Prior to joining the University of Wollongong, Joshua worked as a consultant in the IT and logistics industries. His main international research links are with the Anderson Graduate School of Management, University of California. His teaching and research interests centre on operations research, strategic supply chain management, electronic business and workflow optimisation.