Last week, I attended a MIT/Stanford VLAB event on 3D printing technologies. While I had previously been aware of 3D printing (which works basically the way it sounds) as a way of helping companies and startups do quick prototypes or letting geeks of the “maker” persuasion make random knickknacks, it was at the event that I started to recognize the technology’s disruptive potential in manufacturing. While the conference itself was actually more about personal use for 3D printing, when I thought about the applications in the industrial/business world, it was literally like seeing the first part/introduction of a new chapter or case study from Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (and inspiration for one of the more popular blog posts here :-)) play out right in front of me:
- Like many other disruptive innovations when they began, 3D printing today is unable to serve the broader manufacturing “market”. Generally speaking, the time needed per unit output, the poor “print resolution”, the upfront capital costs, and some of the limitations in terms of materials are among the reasons that the technology as it stands today is uncompetitive with traditional mass manufacturing.
- Even if 3D printing were competitive today, there are big internal and external stumbling blocks which would probably make it very difficult for existing large companies to embrace it. Today’s heavyweight manufacturers are organized and incentivized internally along the lines of traditional assembly line manufacturing. They also lack the partners, channels, and supply chain relationships (among others) externally that they would need to succeed.
- While 3D printing today is very disadvantaged relative to traditional manufacturing technologies (most notably in speed and upfront cost), it is extremely good at certain things which make it a phenomenal technology for certain use cases:
- Rapid design to production: Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques which take significant initial tooling and setup, once you have a 3D printer and an idea, all you need to do is print the darn thing! At the conference, one of the panelists gave a great example: a designer bought an Apple iPad on a Friday, decided he wanted to make his own iPad case, and despite not getting any help from Apple or prior knowledge of the specs, was able by Monday to be producing and selling the case he had designed that weekend. Idea to production in three days. Is it any wonder that so many of the new hardware startups are using 3D printing to do quick prototyping?
- Short runs/lots of customization: Chances are most of the things you use in your life are not one of a kind (i.e. pencils, clothes, utensils, dishware, furniture, cars, etc). The reason for this is that mass production make it extremely cheap to produce many copies of the same thing. The flip side of this is that short production runs (where you’re not producing thousands or millions of the same thing) and production where each item has a fair amount of customization or uniqueness is really expensive. With 3D printing, however, because each item being produced is produced in the same way (by the printer), you can produce one item at close to the same per unit price as producing a million – this makes 3D printing a very interesting technology for markets where customization & short runs are extremely valuable.
- Shapes/structures that injection molding and machining find difficult: There are many shapes where traditional machining (taking a big block of material and whittling it down to the desired shape) and injection molding (building a mold and then filling it with molten material to get the desired shape) are not ideal: things like producing precision products that go into airplanes and racecars or printing the scaffolds with which bioengineers hope to build artificial organs are uniquely addressable by 3D printing technologies.
- Low labor: The printer takes care of all of it – thus letting companies cut costs in manufacturing and/or refocus their people to steps in the process which do require direct human intervention.
- And, of course, with the new markets which are opening up for 3D printing, its certainly helpful that the size, cost, and performance of 3D printers has improved dramatically and is continuing to improve – to the point where the panelists were very serious when they articulated a vision of the future where 3D printers could be as widespread as typical inkjet/laser printers!
Ok, so why do we care? While its difficult to predict precisely what this technology could bring (it is disruptive after all!), I think there are a few tantalizing possibilities of how the manufacturing game might change to consider:
- The ability to do rapid design to production means you could do “fast fashion” for everything – in the same way that companies like Zara can produce thousands of different products in a season (and quickly change them to meet new trends/styles), broader adoption of 3D printing could lead to the rise of new companies where design/operational flexibility and speed are king, as the companies best able to fit their products to the flavor-of-the-month gain more traction.
- The ability to do customization means you can manufacture custom parts/products cost-effectively and without holding as much inventory; production only needs to begin after an order is on hand (no reason to hold extra “copies” of something that may go out of fashion/go bad in storage when you can print stuff on the fly) and the lack of retooling means companies can be a lot more flexible in terms of using customization to get more customers.
- I’m not sure how all the second/third-order effects play out, but this could also put a damper on outsourced manufacturing to countries like China/India – who cares about cheaper manufacturing labor overseas when 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture locally without much labor and avoid import duties, shipping delays, and the need to hold on to parts/inventory?
I think there’s a ton of potential for the technology itself and its applications, and the possible consequences for how manufacturing will evolve are staggering. Yes, we are probably a long way off from seeing this, but I think we are on the verge of seeing a disruptive innovation take place, and if you’re anything like me, you’re excited to see it play out.