3D Printing -”To Disrupt or not to Disrupt?, that is the Question”


President Obama once said: -“3D printing may very well have the potential to revolutionize the way me make almost everything”!
Fine, but I don´t believe it will happen the way most of us think it will; as a technical revolution. I think the major disruption from 3D printing will be with socio-economic factors such as new truly disruptive business models appearing on the market as consumer (home) 3D-Printing becomes commoditized, which is actually happening here and now!

But let´s first take a step backwards to see what 3D Printing really is all about;

I recently participated in a Science and Society Forum seminar at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) in Stockholm with the intention to answer the question if 3D Printing is beyond the Tipping Point or not? It was a half day seminar, with international 3D printing experts that gave very good resume of its global state.

3D Printing is formally used to describe the consumer variant of so called ”Additive Manufacturing” (AM) that is also more commonly used to describe its industrial/professional application. Additive Manufacturing means manufacturing things layer by layer directly from a 3D digital design (a CAD Drawing), nothing more, nothing less. So why is then 3D-printing today hyped to almost propagandistic extremes, I wonder ?

AM/3D Printing represents an alternative manufacturing technique to todays dominating techniques, Injection Molding and Subtractive Manufacturing (where one ”machine away” excessive material from a solid block/cast/bill). At it´s best, it offers some truly disruptive features, such as:

  • Speed & Local Manufacturing
    • Print directly from your digital design (CAD-Drawing)
    • Print at home, or by uploading your design to one of the 25.000 local 3D HUB´s that are available on the internet all over the world today
    • Get Instant solutions
  • Mass Customization for free
    • Custom-fitted hearing aids through simple ear-scans
    • Custom-fitted products in general
  • Material efficiency
    • AM/3D Printing can save up to 90% of the material needed to manufacture (print) a device, without loosing its mechanical properties, wich saves both money and the environment
  • Complexity for free
    • For Aesthetic use (personal designs, art, entertainment)
    • To simplify complex products by parts consolidation in the range of 1:100
  • Open Source Innovation
    • Fast and cheap prototyping cycles
  • Launching of Products to Market at no Risk
    • Very small initial investment

But, according to the experts at the seminar, it will NOT replace the conventional manufacturing technologies! AM/3D Printing is rather a complementary technology that will offer these huge advantages over conventional manufacturing when applied the right way for certain products!

AM/3D Printing may however very well offer true disruption i several other dimensions, a few of which were presented as examples during the seminar;

  • It will disrupt todays supply chains and business models
  • It is a disruptive respons to todays global socio-economic change
  • It is playing an important role the digital manufacturing era of ”Industry 4.0”
  • It will have a profound effect on all of us, our society, healthcare and the environment.

As i said initially, Consumer/Home 3D Printing is becoming a commodity here and now! You can buy an affordable home printer from Amazon.com starting from 350 USD, or you can buy local printer services from 3D HUB (https://www.3dhubs.com) for 3-50€ for small parts.

So, printing is both affordable and easy to access already today! Now what?

Well, as I see it, one of the largest challenges with 3D Printing is that we either will have to become designers ourselves, and able to use sophsticated CAD-type software (and scanners?) or learn how to buy design-services on the webb, a market that already exists, with the same business model as e.g. UpWork, today. We simply need to tell the 3D Printers what to print, exactly and in all detail, and that is done by uploading our design-file to the printer!

Easy to use, CAD-type design software is therefore mandatory, and this type of software is toay undergoing massive development efforts all over the globe. Today, you can already buy software packages on the webb, or even download free 3D Design Apps from Appstore.

As experiences also shows, most of us are really very bad designers if we need to start with a blank sheet! Most of the 3D Design software on the market today is therefore based on the concept of ”adjusting/personalising pre-existing default designs” by moving scales etc, using the same type of interfaces as we have on our mobile platforms today. There is of course also a vast supply of books on 3D Design and 3D Printing available from all major book-stores on the market today.

So, back to President Obama and his statement that -“3D Printing may very well have the potential to revolutionize the way me make almost everything”!

Is this really true?

Well, both Yes and No!

No, because it is a complementary manufacturing technology, it is already here, it started some 25 years ago, but will not become a true technological disruption until we can manufacture parts with a quality that superceeds what we accomplish today with injection molding and subtractive manufacturing. This may in fact take another 10-20 years according to the experts at the seminar! And, as one of the speakers at the seminar pointed out: There are hundreds of printed parts in an AIRBUS aeroplane today, but still only 1 (one) printed component that is approved and used in a flight critical application on board.

Yes, because it is already today disrupting many socio-economic factors, such as the way we work, our supply chains, business models, prototyping and innovation! So, here, in my mind, is where we should look for the large and immediate opportunities for innovative and ultimately disruptive business development enabled by AM/3D Printing!

From my own perspective, working professionally with Innovation Capability development and Innovation Process implementation it has now become easier to answer the original question:

3D Printing  -”To Disrupt!, that is the Answer”

Use it!