3D printing will change the way businesses are transacted

Written by Uma Ganesh | Updated: Nov 18 2013, 10:24am hrs
3D printing has been making waves in the manufacturing arena which is touted as the next big thing to revolutionise consumerism and product development. Just as e-commerce has removed the boundaries for marketing and brought the consumers and producers closer, 3D printing is expected to enlarge the market for producers by removing the shackles of production volumes, minimising the time to market and customising the product as per individual customer needs and all of this at affordable costs.

In the early days of product creation, nuts, screws and hinges were individually hand-crafted for a very long time until the industrialisation era made it feasible to reduce the time to market by mass producing them and have them available in the same size. 3D printing is seen as a disruptive technology that is expected to make the custom component development process less time consuming and more cost effective. Recognising the advantages of this technology, there are some early adopters which include sectors such as automobile manufacturing, healthcare, aerospace, defense, home designers and research labs interested in prototyping the product ideas.

3D printing enables printing of three dimensional products by sending the computer-aided design of the product to the printer which is sliced as required by the software and the design is printed by layering the material part by part until the full shape is formed. The printer enables use of materials such as plastic, metals and polymer and the output has an accuracy of 0.1 mm precision. 3D printing is best suited for rapid prototyping and there is a word of caution on the expectations of quality, strength and consistency for large or repetitive output. With time as more users embrace this technology, and with more research efforts, the technology is expected to be further fine-tuned to enhance the accuracy and predictability of the output.

The best thing about this technology is that whatever may be the size of business, depending upon the specific need; 3D printing is expected to be of advantage. For instance, large automobile manufacturers are using the technology to build prototypes of future models of cars. The Gas Turbine Research Establishment created the prototype of Kaveri jet engine for HALs Tejas aircraft using the same technology. Jewellery designers and home designers could use the technology to provide a much better feel of the final product using this technology as compared to the traditional means.

Within healthcare sector, hearing aids shells, dental applications, personalised hip and knee replacements have been some of the early successes of the use of 3D printing technology. Not all of these businesses would be able to produce small volumes of products required by them on their own and many of them would continue to rely upon businesses who have the domain capability and the know-how to leverage 3D printing technology to deliver their requirements with speed and low cost. It is expected that with time, businesses that are equipped to deliver small volumes and customised designs locally would offer advantages to consumers and manufacturers thus avoiding freight and other transnational costs.

In India, deployment of 3D printers or access of 3D printing has been slow to take off unlike the US and China.

According to a Gartner report, the worldwide shipment of 3D printers priced at less than $100,000 is expected to grow at 49% in 2013 and touch close to 57,00 units, in 2014 the growth is expected to be 75% touching close to 95,00 units and in the year 2015, the number of printers shipped would be close to 200,000 units. According to Gartner, historically, 3D printers have been mostly sold to North America, Western Europe and Asia Pacific regions with most of the additive manufacturing devices however China has become one of the largest consumers of this technology with the CAGR expected to touch above 98% by 2017 and outstrip these regions by upto six points. The top 50 retailers are expected to start selling 3D printers through their online and physical stores from 2015 onwards.

The prediction of Gartner regarding the user profile and usage pattern is significant for India as the country is a large producer of manufacturing goods and it presents with immense possibilities to capitalise on the rich engineering talent available for developing niche products for meeting the needs of global customers and domestic manufacturers.

When 3D printing was first introduced, the costs were prohibitive, but the costs are continuously dropping. Just as in the early days of introduction of PCs there was a question mark on its wide spread adoptability, there remains the question of relevance of D printers with product creation. However, the trends in the last five years in terms of dropping costs and increasing capabilities of the technology present positive outlook for the coming years. According to the US department of energy, 3D printing could reduce energy costs by 50% and cut material costs by 90% by the year 2020.

With the availability of the affordable technology, it is also predicted that new models of after care market are likely to evolve. The technology presents with an exciting opportunity for firms already engaged with outsourced engineering services and other MSMEs with specialised engineering capabilities to be able to provide replacement parts to global customers with the advantages of affordable cost, minimal time and addressing individual needs.

Apart from servicing the manufacturing sector, the opportunity to set up printing bureaus with the facility for printing the designs as per the requirements of customers has been highlighted as an important avenue for business generation from individual customers for their household needs.

As Richard ADAveni points out in the Harvard Business Review of March 2013, 3D printing will change the world and organisations will be forced to rethink their strategy of supply chain, procurement, retailing. Just as information technology played a key role in re-engineering the businesses, 3D printing technology has the power to dramatically change the way businesses are transacted. The time is ripe for small and medium scale businesses to take advantage of 3D printing technology and offer distinctive advantages to their customers thus creating a unique role for themselves as large enterprises rejig themselves and the end consumers start making new demands with the understanding of the potential of the technology.

The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company