This is the fourth post of five that focuses on the disruptive potential, commercialisation and adoption of the key new technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Prior posts have considered the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality and a final post will review Blockchain.
What is 3D Printing?
The terms ‘3D printing’ (3DP) and ‘additive manufacturing’ refer to seven different technologies through which materials are solidified or joined to form physical objects from digitally created models. No longer a painfully slow process relevant only for bespoke production, complex products can now be created in minutes not hours, at costs competitive with mass production.
Moreover, multiple materials can be laid down in a seamless process to produce SCPs - electronic circuitry, sensors and all. We are on the cusp of realising the transformative promise of 3DP at industrial scale, whilst 4DP, which uses materials encoded with dynamic capability, is coming.
Disruptive Potential of 3DP
The detrimental impacts to ‘developed’ societies resulting from the globalisation of supply chains are causing a rethink and reversal of previous century outsourcing and offshoring practices. The maturation of 3DP is a timely enabler towards (re)building manufacturing capability across all nations and of more sustainable approach to manufacturing for our resource constrained planet, enabling a shift from “designing for ideal manufacturing to manufacturing the ideal design”.
Where the internet ushered in atomic models for information, 3D printing ushers in atomic models for objects and a new era of pan-industrial competition where the strategic choice is one of scope not focus. With the right tools and raw materials, factories anywhere can manufacture not just parts but complete products for any number of industries, and continually iterate and tailor these in response to market demand. The platform opportunities are significant.
Commercialisation of 3DP
3DP has been around for decades, and marketplaces support an ecosystem of small-scale makers to flourish. For large-scale manufacturing companies, the transition to 3D printing requires investment in re-tooling, in CAD software, and in industrial designers who must abandon the tenets of geometry and simplification, and instead seek inspiration in complex bionic structures.
Market Adoption of 3DP
In both B2C and B2B markets, the barriers to adoption of 3DP as a production method are minimal given the level of personalisation that can now be delivered economically. That production can now be located proximately, within national borders or even in the neighbourhood, aligns well with ever-increasing expectations of instant delivery, desire for local provenance, and concerns for resource sustainability.