3D Printing – Lessons from experience

Recently, I’ve been involved in several projects helping clients to understand what 3D printing means for their businesses. There’s been a huge amount of media coverage of 3D printing, as well as serious investment from the likes of GE and P&G. Many organisations are wondering if 3D printing could revolutionise their business – or whether a new entrant with a business model enabled by 3D printing could disrupt their sector.

The outcomes from our projects exploring the potential of 3D printing have been varied and fascinating. Manufacturing is often underplayed as a route to competitive advantage, and shining the spotlight on it can reveal untapped value. Not always. When we draw a blank, we construct a clear case why 3D printing isn’t the right thing for our client, and point to more attractive alternatives.

It’s hard to draw universal conclusions from this work. Thinking about the value of 3D printing requires a holistic approach, and the hard questions lie in different places, depending on company and industry. However, I’d like to share three mental guidelines for thinking about 3D printing:

1. it’s normally not ‘disruptive’,

2. it’s just another manufacturing technology and,

3. if a Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machine isn’t being used already, be wary!

Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

1. 3D printing isn’t (normally) disruptive: Given the media coverage, this sounds like heresy. But recall what Clay Christensen described as a classic low-end ‘disruptive innovation’: a new technology that enters from the bottom of the market and steadily increases in capability to offer a lower-cost alternative to even mainstream and high-end customers. Such technologies can develop fast and rapidly change the face of an industry.

3D printing was a low-end disruptive technology for the prototyping industry: Skilled clay model makers, charging high fees, were progressively replaced by cheaper 3D printing. However, for mainstream manufacturing, 3D printing is normally the most expensive way possible to produce a given object! As such, 3D printing tends to be adopted either in specific niches where the capability outweighs the costs, or to create new markets that serve latent customer needs, Christensen’s ‘new market disruption’.

Why is this important? It suggests that we’re not approaching a tipping point where 3D printing will disrupt conventional manufacturing and overturn established industries. Rather, expect continuing steady adoption as the technology advances to fulfil other niche requirements and start-ups emerge to pioneer new business models enabled by 3D printing.

2. 3D printing is just another manufacturing technology: There’s a misconception that a 3D printer is a magic box that asks what you want and produces it ready to sell. In reality, 3D printing is no different from any other production technology. Using it requires skilled engineering input, experienced operators and, typically, a series of other processing steps. In fact, these are often more complex than for traditional techniques. Design rules are still in their infancy, lengthy heat treatments are sometimes needed to strengthen parts and quality control can involve medical-grade scanners.

3D printing is an exciting and useful addition to the manufacturing engineer’s toolbox, but it’s not a panacea. Don’t forget to consider the other steps in the production system (e.g. design, material supply, post-processing, QC, distribution), and be aware that the solutions for these steps may not yet exist.

3. Be wary if a CNC machine isn’t being used already: Many firms have been manufacturing one-off complex parts for years. They often use Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machine tools. To produce an object, a 3D printer adds material layer by layer, whereas the CNC machine takes it away, i.e. subtracts material. The technology, developed in the 1940s, delivers many of the benefits of 3D printing.

When clients tell me that they are excited about 3D printing, I’m particularly cautious if I don’t see CNC machines in their plants: it’s possible that they can exploit some of the specific differences between 3D printing and CNC. But it’s equally likely that neither technology is a good fit.

Manufacturing strategy is rarely simple – especially when it comes to new and fast developing technologies, and it’s further complicated when you include latent customer needs and new business models in the mix. Innovia brings a unique skill set and a holistic approach to these complex problems. We’d love to discuss your challenges with you. Expect searching questions, broad creativity and careful analysis so that together, we can cut through the hype.

WRITTEN BY: Rich Bown

Although my background is in engineering, I get involved in all sorts of things at Innovia - like developing medical devices, creating visions of future factories, helping clients set technology strategy or running innovation courses. The variety of new challenges keeps me interested, even after ten years at Innovia! At weekends, I flee to the mountains or the coast - kayaking, mountain biking or just getting lost in the hills.