3D Printing Isn't a Gimmick - It's a Production Technology with Strategic Implications!
Many industrial manufacturers have dismissed 3D printing as a fad - merely something that technologists get excited about and a tool for prototyping, but not a legitimate high volume production tool.
Those dismissals have persisted even as:
- GE and others have opened multiple additive manufacturing (3D printing) production facilities
- multi-material printing has been realized
- large volume products and production (e.g. neighborhoods of printed buildings) have become reality
- platforms such as Xometry have grown to offer supply chain capabilities
- manufacturing 4.0 has been broadly accepted (IIoT and cloud data in addition to 3D Printing)
There's no doubt that 3D Printing has legitimately arrived, and the benefits - savings through material waste reduction, and the ability to print parts in complex configurations that couldn't be machined - offer substantial value to business.
It's also going to disrupt - maybe not as quickly or completely as the enthusiasts predict, but probably faster than most capital equipment manufacturers believe.
"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten." Bill Gates (who missed plenty of coming changes himself!)
So to prime the creative thinking pump for your next strategy session, here are 11 potential impacts of 3D printing on your business for consideration.
Likely Impacts of Additive Manufacturing on Capital Equipment Suppliers
To help in considering the impacts we've split them into categories of:
- market & demand
- manufacturing operations
- machinery life-cycle services
Market & Demand
This is the potentially most important category...and the least considered because most folks that machine metal think of 3D printing as an alternative.
- What happens when your customers' customers print their end product - this sounds outlandish but it will happen. Companies that build processing systems and packaging machines for the food industry, for instance, will face a reality in some years (how many??) when many consumer products (food, furniture, etc. etc.) will simply be printed. Some of it may occur in the home (e.g. printed meal kits on from a Blue Apron printer perhaps) and others in retail establishments which will become printing and distribution centers.
This of course means that food manufacturing factories will be less common - reducing the demand for all the related equipment from ingredient processing, material handling, packaging, cooling/freezing, cooking, etc.
- At the same time it will become possible to create complex systems much faster and less expensively. That will open up opportunities for more flexible application criteria. Perhaps to install a machine in days or weeks, from scratch, vs months. Short lead-times, and lower prices could open new opportunities for your traditional customers to respond quickly and locally to changing tastes and expectations of their customers. Samples, promotions, market tests and other opportunities could become feasible.
Imagine being able to create a new, complex piece of capital equipment almost as easily as a software company spins up another license!
This is the group of potential impacts that you're probably already planning and perhaps experimenting with.
- Your supply chain will be disrupted as industries are transformed/eliminated - component suppliers, paint booths, dust control, material reclamation, coating delays and countless other aspects of current manufacturing planning and operations will disappear
- It will become simpler to customize and document machine modifications - for companies that are creative
- In a related change, complex designs will be possible at lower price - welds are undesirable in many food grade solutions, for instance, and can potentially be eliminated without massive machining cost or material waste. Taken a step further, entirely new functions will become possible as Shapeshifting 4D printing gains ground. (Materials which can be printed in one configuration, with another engineered in which is triggered as current or heat is applied!)
- HR requirements and staffing will evolve - hiring skill sets will change based on the volume and requirements of certain types of work.
- Eventually complete assembly will follow component manufacturing - as printing is capable to "print" entire complete systems, this will change facility and real estate requirements for your location. Eventually you might even print directly in the customer's.
- Distribution and delivery will occur by electronic file - for short lead-time requirements, international sales, or machinery that requires special rigging and transportation considerations, this will save money and open up new opportunities
- The role of indirect sales channel will change - for companies that rely on distribution networks to provide local stock, service and support, those requirements will be reduced or eliminated.
- End of life problems and down time will be reduced - spare parts orders will eventually be fulfilled by provision of an electronic file for local printing.
- Replacement parts warehouse and inventory cost will fall - despite all the other disruption, you'll be grateful to not be tracking inventory turns and carrying cost for extensive spare parts inventories!
What Other Impacts Are You Considering?
We're all guessing of course. And this is a brief list just to provoke some discussion during your next executive staff strategic planning session.
What we can count on is that this is a trend that will accelerate. It will impact your business in ways we can anticipate and many others we can't.
That will require flexibility, resilience and agility which will only be borne of preparation and scenario planning. It's probably past time to get serious about a skunkworks internally - funded and staffed to position your company ahead of the curve.
It might also make sense for you to take an industry lead in assembling a group of independent experts to contribute to an industry knowledge graph, and convene some meetings of key customers, stake holders and industry experts for some brainstorming. Some of the answers may be disquieting, but of course it's better to know them that to pretend they don't exist.
And maybe it's time to take a bigger approach to strategy planning than simply talking about sales tactics and digital marketing!