The technology will disrupt assembly and manufacturing processes, supply chains and transport networks, and transform cross-border trade, writes Sarah Rundell.


Imagine the scenario. You lose your phone. No sooner have you requested a replacement than details of a new device come through the cloud to your living room printer. Give it a minute and a brand new phone emerges in the output tray. The concept of printing objects may sound unbelievable. But just as new technologies like drones and blockchain are shaping a fascinating future, so is 3D printing promising far-reaching ramifications. Also known as additive manufacturing, it could ultimately allow some manufactured goods to be printed as a whole, on site or close to the end user.

The basics of the technology involve downloading a computer programme that contains a virtual representation of an object. Using a variety of materials ranging from rubber to plastics and even metals, a printer reproduces it as successive layers of material until the final shape is complete.

Today less than 0.5% of all manufacturing output is printed. It’s a tiny amount, but the technology is starting to appear on the factory floor and in production processes across diverse industries. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus uses 3D-printed parts in its aircraft and nearly all hearing aids, custom-made to each ear, are now made using 3D printers. Websites offer children the ability to custom-make toys that are 3D-printed and delivered to their door. At its most pioneering, the technology even extends to printing parts of the body. Consultancy Wohlers Associates believes 3D printing will eventually capture 5% of global manufacturing capacity, making 3D printing a US$640bn industry.

To date it is most commonly used to make prototypes. It enables companies to transform and tweak new product models over time, based on analysis, feedback and testing.

“Until recently we were using external bureaus to produce our prototypes and this was adding cost and time to our development programmes,” says Martin Hurworth, managing director at Harvey Water Softeners, a British manufacturer that designs, manufactures and installs domestic water softeners. “With a printer in-house, the only additional cost is the small amount of extra material. It allows us to move from the test stage to a prototype faster than ever and develop complex design iterations more quickly.”

Much of the 3D opportunity in the future lies in parts production, already the fastest-growing 3D printing application. From virtually zero in 2003, it had risen to account for 43%, or US$1.8bn, of global 3D-printed product and service revenue in 2014, according to research from the parcel delivery group UPS and the Consumer Technology Association.

Printing parts speeds development and delivery for customised products, and increases flexibility. Instead of warehouses packed with spare parts, the company’s digital designs can be downloaded from a virtual inventory to different locations for parts to be printed to order. It is something machinery giant Caterpillar is pioneering: “Advancements in 3D printing technology will soon make it possible for us to print a part right on the job site as a permanent solution,” says the company on its website.

Proponents also point to the benefits 3D printing brings to the design process. Goods are made with materials that weigh less, allowing more design freedom. That’s important in the automotive industry and aeronautics, where global manufacturer GE, for one, has invested US$1.5bn in 3D printing.

One innovation includes printing fuel nozzles for the new LEAP jet engine, which it is building with France’s defence group Safran. By 2020, GE plans to print 35,000 fuel nozzles a year, each one printed as a single structure instead of being welded together from 20 or more components. Add to this the fact that the new nozzles are lighter than older designs, and five times more durable. “By building a complex component as a single additive part, you reduce weight from fewer welds and brazing, and the durability is better,” says Greg Morris, additive technologies leader at GE Aviation. “A key to additive manufacturing is your ability to design and engineer parts in manners previously unable because of manufacturing limitations. In the coming years, you will see new design approaches because of the freedom created by additive manufacturing.”


Supply chain shake-up?

The implications for trade could be profound, particularly combined with other disruptive technologies, argues Michael Vrontamitis, head of trade, Europe and Americas, at Standard Chartered.

“Robotics, automation and 3D printing could potentially constrain the growth of global supply chains, with goods being customised locally leading to on-shoring and the regionalisation of production process,” he says. A prediction he balances with the observation that factors like the transfer of advanced technologies between countries and information and communications technology will also boost global, cross-border trade.

Any on-shoring trend would chime with increased protectionism and sustainability constraints. In 2011, floods in Thailand disrupted supply chains for an array of multinationals including Honda, Toyota and Chinese computer maker Lenovo.

“Corporates want to make their supply chains more robust and diverse, and 3D printing with printing happening not only closer to home but in multiple locations, will play into this,” says Vrontamitis.

The raw materials required in the printing process could also dictate the locations. A 2015 survey by 3D printing group Stratasys found that metal use is expected to grow faster than plastic. “It could see the unbundling of traditional supply chains,” Vrontamitis says.

At GE it is already happening. “Key components within a jet engine can travel literally thousands of miles across various suppliers before a complex component is ultimately fabricated. Additive manufacturing centralises the supply chain logistics,” says Morris.

Disrupting a secure supply chain brings risk. “The biggest challenge to manufacturers is the possibility of sensitive research and development data being leaked when outsourcing the 3D printing of product prototypes in competitive markets,” says Hurworth.

It’s led some futurists to point to a time when trade won’t be in physical goods but in intellectual property. Which raises the next problem. How do you protect manufacturers from individuals downloading and printing products without the right owner’s permission, especially in industries – like the toy business – where products are relatively easy to make and use minimal materials?

For all the hype, 3D printing is still in its infancy. It remains too slow for mass production, too expensive for some applications and the finished product is not always up to scratch: 3D printed parts are still unlikely to be as strong as traditionally manufactured parts.

“The average cost of producing something is high. Costs will come down over time but the reality of 3D printing replacing things that are mass produced in factories is still a way off,” says Vrontamitis, who doesn’t believe manufacturing will shift from low-wage countries just yet. “It is still cheaper to produce things like garments and electronics in Asean or African countries.”

For now, 3D printing is celebrated for allowing speedy prototype production, reduced lead times and for its role in cutting the number of moving parts in a single component. But manufacturers have glimpsed the future. “Within a decade it’s entirely possible that we could be using 3D printing to create finished parts on our production line, especially if the costs keeps falling as they have done to date. I can’t see us making entire water softeners that way by 2025, but certainly there will be the opportunity to produce bespoke parts for our customers,” concludes Hurworth.