Additive manufacturing is an alternative production technology which allows for a layer-by-layer creation of more durable, lighter and stronger objects. It promises a revolution for companies across industries. However, like all major changes and opportunities, it also comes with several challenges.
The publishing industry did not see Xerox’s copiers coming and suffered to adapt, and likewise the music industry took years to find a business model after the MP3 format appeared. 3D printing could create similar challenges for all companies in manufacturing.
It is already difficult (but possible) to fight cheap knock-offs when they come from abroad because the products are sold in a store, but if consumers can produce home-made copies and distribute designs, many manufacturers could see their sales hit hard.
Fortunately, domestic 3D printing can only create ABS plastic, so promoting more noble materials such as wood, ceramics and metal might be a good differentiation way to go. In the future, products that may be made at home could also be sold as dematerialized files and downloaded with a license.
The possibility to print spare parts on demand may extend guarantees and therefore allow companies to be more ecological. It has the potential to reduce product obsolescence, but for the companies whose business model is built on low quality and product rotation, it may mean trouble.
Even for higher end manufacturers, allowing your products to be repaired could reduce new product sales. 3D printing could also mean that customers might be able to print their own spare parts which would negatively impact sales, too.
This could become a problem (and an opportunity at the same time), for instance for companies that manufacture household items with intricate small plastic parts such as household electronics.
Supply chain contractors
For the companies whose business is to transport the products made by others, on-demand printing could reduce the demand for their services. Fortunately, a lot of products will still be produced in a cheaper way using the traditional technologies. Moreover, certain materials will - at least for some time - remain out of bounds for 3D printing.
Nonetheless, whenever speed is the key factor, a quick delivery might no longer be necessary and 3D printing could beat any airplane. Globally, the possibility to print on demand will also reduce the need to produce and store a lot of moulded products.
Similarly, the companies that start using 3D printing to shorten their supply chain and after sales where and when it is most sensible may gain a key competitive advantage, as long as their analysis and understanding of the situation is clever.
Cost vs established processes
Traditional manufacturing uses techniques and processes which over time have become exceptionally efficient (think plastic bottles) to the point where our consumption of plastic has become an issue for our planet. 3D printing may simply be too expensive for many years to replace these techniques.
On the other hand, some textured materials that need to be produced in small quantities but complex designs (like lattice for medical uses) can be near impossible to produce and therefore provide a niche for 3D printing.
Knowledge and investment
Any new machinery needs to be purchased (or rented) and the people who use it need to be trained, and hired.
Buying 3D printing machinery would mean that the companies who see an advantage in this technology will have to make investment and debt decisions. Some may not be able to or be reluctant to get out of their technological comfort zone.
3D printing at company level would imply hiring or upskilling employees, starting from engineers to operations, and it will represent a significant cost for companies that have invested in traditional plastic mould technology.
Durability and reliability
In spite of the ecological disaster caused by the durability of plastic, we know that plastic can become brittle, have defects when moulded, and 3D printed objects may also not stand the test of time very well.
Once printed and integrated in more complex machinery, printed parts may in fact not last as long. In that respect 3D printing still has to prove that the versatility of additive manufacturing can challenge the reliability of materials like metal or traditional carbon fiber.
In particular, the companies that manufacture machinery, including car manufacturing using the 3D printing technologies will probably need to restrict the use of 3D printed parts to non essential uses where reliability won’t cause security concerns.
3D printing is clearly going to be a game changer for both consumers and enterprises. Apart from being a great toy for hobbyists and useful tool in research and development, it will allow companies to find ways to operate that until recently had been completely unheard of. It can be as big a change as the internet for our economies and societies, but companies will also face new challenges.