Once in a while, a technology comes along with the potential to be completely game changing: If you ask me, 3D printing presented that way and hasn’t let us down yet. It’s getting better—we’re about to see the technology evolve away from prototyping and into something much more revolutionary for a number of industries. Let’s go beyond the novelty of 3D printing, and highlight its potential in markets ranging from healthcare to manufacturing.
3D Printing As We Know It
Also known as additive manufacturing or additive fabrication, 3D printing is, simply put, the construction of objects by adding material. See Figure 1 below for a visual of how 3D printing software helps take ideas and turn them into artifacts. There are essentially no limits on precisely what objects can be constructed with 3D printers—sometimes appropriately referred to as all-in-one-factories—because they can handle materials ranging from metals to human cells.
Figure 1: 3D Printing from Idea to Artifact; Source: PWC © 2014 Pricewater Coopers LLP
The Future of 3D Printing
A recent study projects that the 3D printing market—growing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of about 25 percent—will reach a value of $17.2 billion by the year 2020. Below are a few recent advances in 3D printing that will undoubtedly help to spur that growth.
Bioprinting using human cells will revolutionize reconstructive medicine. At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), researchers noted they’d discovered a method of three dimensionally bioprinting cartilage—only this time, the “ink” is made up of human cells. The technique is still in the refining process, but has real implications in the fields of plastic surgery, personalized prosthetics, sports medicine and even treatments for arthritis.
Virtual inventory and custom micro-manufacturing will dramatically affect SMBs. Companies of all sizes aggressively pursue cost savings, analyzing and reanalyzing processes and programs to maximize ROI—this is especially true for SMBs whose budgets might be a little more strapped than their enterprise counterparts. Switching physical inventory to cloud-based virtual inventory could help, allowing companies to generate parts on demand and seriously changing how we see the supply chain.
We can even take this virtual concept past inventory all the way to micro-manufacturing, where companies could be able to access a network of production tools and technologies as-needed without fronting infrastructure costs. You’ll definitely want to watch for this up-and-coming application, referred to by some as the “elastic manufacturing cloud.”
The IoT will meet 3D printing—a match made in end-user heaven. Objects in the IoT generate an incredible amount of data, and 3D printing relies on data to produce personalized objects. As you can see, the potential here is borderline exponential. Some software companies are already operating on the cusp of this impeding surge, plugging sensor data into what are termed “generative design” programs that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) for interpretation of detailed design criteria. In the end, 3D printers are poised to bring these “smart” designs to life—and, in the process, revamp the production and design space as we know it.
Do any of the applications above sound applicable to your workplace? If you’re still stuck on the concept, think of it this way: 3D printing is for manufacturing what YouTube is for musicians—a chance to go from objects made by companies to objects made by everyone. Just imagine how this widespread knowledge will impact our collective ability to innovate!
I’ve covered a lot of concepts in this post, but be sure to commit this one to memory: Expect the sheer crowdsourcing for micro-manufacturing and technology alone that will accompany many of these 3D printing initiatives to be very disruptive. What’s your standout projection? How do you foresee 3D printing impacting your industry? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This article was brought to you in part by HP, Inc. Opinions and thoughts are those of the author.