3D printing and its impact on business

3D printing is revolutionising production, manufacturing and supply chain management. It might sound like the stuff of science fiction but it’s very real and already showing the potential to transform entire industries. 

What is 3D printing?

Three dimensional printing is a way of creating goods, from prosthetics to musical instruments and even houses, by use of a ‘printing’ machine. It lays down layers of a substance – typically but not exclusively plastic – in three dimensions.

3D printing is an evolution of the way a traditional printer lays down ink on a page. The technology enables users to scan objects in 3D, just as we scan documents, to create solid items.

The concept has been in use for decades in automotive and aviation industries for the creation of parts. Thanks to advances in technology, the size and cost of machines has fallen to a point where, in the not too distant future, it will be possible for every office, and even home, to have one.

What impact will it have on business?

3D printing has the power to dismantle traditional manufacturing models. With 3D printing, designs created on software can be fed directly to printing machines and go straight into the production, without the need for tooling.

The Harvard Business Review says 3D printing could reverse the prevailing trend to outsource manufacturing to countries like China, bringing production back home.

Additive manufacturing, as it is also known, enables businesses to design and manufacture their own products, in small, highly customisable batches. This will cut out shipping and reducing other transport costs.

Indeed, in time consumers may no longer need to shop for certain physical items but simply pay a licensing fee to download their chosen software and ‘print’ the goods at home themselves.

More buzzwords. What is additive manufacturing?

It’s the term used for industrial scale 3D printing in sectors such as the automotive industry. It is technological advances in additive manufacturing that have given rise to the prospect of smaller, cheaper machines suitable for use by businesses and even consumers.

What does all this mean to traditional businesses, particularly smaller ones?

Lots of potential opportunities. Dublin company LayerLabz makes and sells 3D printers for schools. Louth based Mcor Technologies makes the world’s only full-colour, paper based 3D printers.

As 3D printing technology costs continue to fall, a range of new applications will emerge for everything from giftware to medical devices. But don’t cancel that Chinese manufacturing contract just yet. Research company Gartner estimated in 2014 that consumer 3D printing is “five and 10 years away from mainstream adoption”.

July 2015

Images courtesy of Robox