With manufacturing technology heading in dramatically new directions, keeping pace with the latest developments is more important than ever. Executives need to keep their eyes open and be prepared for a very different world from today.
Stories about new manufacturing technologies and their possible applications are dominating the news. Enabled by intelligent manufacturing systems, technologies such as collaborative robots or 3D printing could potentially transform—or even replace—conventional manufacturing operations and lead to “fab labs” (also known as distributed manufacturing facilities) popping up everywhere. As usual with new developments of this magnitude, skeptics will be eager to point out that there’s much more hype than real opportunity, but nobody disputes that these new technologies are worth paying attention to.
Although a fully automated “lights-out” plant is still a few years away, other new technologies are already disrupting the manufacturing landscape. Additive manufacturing, for instance, has the potential to turn today’s supply chains and manufacturing plants upside down. 3D printing, perhaps the most promising of the additive manufacturing technologies, allows the production of solid three-dimensional objects by layering materials using digital technology. The global market for this technology is currently growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, and we estimate that it will reach between $25 billion and $50 billion by 2025.
3D printing has a lot going for it, as it helps meet three of modern production’s most pressing objectives: customer proximity, product localization, and complexity management. It fulfills the needs for individual customization at little or no additional cost (at least when compared to traditional manufacturing processes). “Series of one” will thus become the new normal, finally ushering in the era of mass customization. Today, for some applications, 3D printing has already surpassed traditional manufacturing. In medical devices, especially in applications where small lot sizes and complex, individualized products (such as hip stems and dental crowns) are the rule, 3D printing offers unit cost advantages that conventional manufacturing technologies simply cannot match. In a more experimental application, the technology has also been used to “print” part of a lung that was successfully implanted into a newborn child. Research is also ongoing into manufacturing products such as heart valves or even a complete heart. For example, the Free University of Berlin is focusing on producing heart valve implants that start out as 3D-printed parts. Once introduced inside the human body, the printed parts would gradually disintegrate as they are encapsulated by the body’s own living tissue. And at the University of Iowa researchers are going one step further: they are bringing two technologies together as they research 3D printing of organs made out of “bio-ink” based on living organisms. As the technology keeps progressing, 3D printing may even surpass traditional manufacturing for large-series applications, provided that personalized 3D-printed products can be offered at similar prices to traditional mass-manufactured products.
Given that economies of scale are not a factor in 3D printing and entry barriers are low, the democratization of manufacturing may be possible. Growing numbers of consumers are using marketplaces such as Shapeways and Ponoko to make, share, buy, and sell their own 3D products. Although many of these products arguably are just novelties with very little commercial viability, the fact that it’s possible to make them at all indicates we may be at the beginning of a new era.
Not only new entrants see the disruptive potential of additive manufacturing technologies; traditional manufacturers also realize there’s a shift going on. General Electric (GE) Global Technology Director Christine Furstoss was quoted saying that up to half of the parts in GE’s energy turbines and aircraft engines could be 3D printed by 2022.1 Currently, GE uses 3D printing for certain products such as engine parts and ultrasound transducers to reduce weight, improve design flexibility, and increase efficiency. The company has even set up its own lab that focuses on additive manufacturing research and acquired players, such as Morris Technologies, that specialize in additive manufacturing. The open challenge for mission-critical parts is process control to ensure consistent quality. GE also launched the crowdsourcing manufacturing platform vehicleforge.mil together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create highly complex military vehicles. In April 2013, GE also announced a new partnership with Quirky, a product development company that develops globally crowdsourced products, from iPod cases to 3D printing vending machines.
Local Motors is another successful example of open-source 3D printing seeking to disrupt established industries. The Rally Fighter from Local Motors is the first car built by an open community using, at least for part of its design, additive manufacturing technologies. These socially developed products show a trend toward greater consumer involvement in the manufacturing process. Though they offer greater design and manufacturing flexibility, shorter time-to-market, and less wasted material as some interesting benefits, additive manufacturing and open-source manufacturing also hold some risks. For example, the technology and the open-design environment make it challenging to protect intellectual property (IP). Digitization, global connectedness, and the distributed nature of 3D printers make it easier to replicate parts in areas where IP is unprotected, opening up opportunities for less scrupulous competitors. There is also the risk that suppliers of certain materials may exercise market dominance to drive costs up.