3-D printed objects are no longer mere curiosities. As the technology continues to improve and fall in price, more consumers use them to create everything from soap holders to piggy banks to customized hooks.
That’s just the beginning. It’s been half a decade since Wired’s Chris Anderson predicted that 3-D printing would usher in a new industrial revolution. Since then, technologies like wearables and artificial intelligence have overshadowed 3-D printing, at least in the press.
However, the industry has been quietly building. The 3-D printing industry surpassed $5 billion in 2015 as consumers purchased 278,000 desktop printers worldwide. The industry as a whole grew 25.9 percent. Gartner predicts that by 2019, additive manufacturing, as it’s also known, will be a $14.6 billion business.
The growth has been impressive on the business side as well. Manufacturers like GE, Ford and Nissan are now using additive manufacturing. A 2016 survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found 71 percent of manufacturers were using 3-D printing for prototyping and final products.
Prototyping and Replacing, Not Mass Production
Those firms are mostly using additive manufacturing to create prototypes. The idea of 3-D printing cars or even car parts on an assembly line is years off. How many years, though? That PricewaterhouseCoopers survey showed that 52 percent of manufacturers said that they thought 3-D printing would be used for high-volume production within three to five years. At this point, printers are far too slow to produce at volume.
The 3-D printed objects that most manufacturers are producing are prototypes. Making a prototype in a traditional factory is an arduous process that requires remaking molds and then flowing in liquid plastics or metals. 3-D printing is a much easier way to create such prototypes. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and entrepreneur Jim McKelvey created the first prototype for Square, the credit-card swiper, with a 3-D printer.
Another use for 3-D printing is to create replacement parts. A far-flung satellite office, for instance, could use its own 3-D printer to produce a broken machine part rather than waiting for headquarters to recreate and send the part. Daimler AG, the world’s largest truck manufacturer, is using additive manufacturing to create replacement parts.
Another segment that’s creating 3-D printed objects is medicine and health care. 3-D printers can already create prosthetic devices, like a mechanical hand for a Sudanese refugee. They have also been used to create splints to be used in operations on newborns. Doctors have used 3-D printers to replace skull parts. A Massachusetts company called Conformis prints hundreds of knee implants every year.
These use cases are occurring as small companies using 3-D printers appear ready to give traditional manufacturers some new competition. The Brooklyn-based Voodoo Manufacturing, for instance, uses 160 printers that cost $2,000 each to print up to 160 items at the same time. The company says it can undercut traditional factories producing runs of 10,000 pieces. The company hopes to cut its costs by 90 percent during the next few years as printers get cheaper and more efficient.
While such upstarts have an opportunity to disrupt manufacturing, most business leaders are aware of the threat. They’ve also lived through the past few years in which “digital disruption” has become a fact of daily life. Most likely, manufacturers will use 3-D printing to create disruption themselves and bring down costs for everyone.