Is 3D printing the next big thing?

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Arthur C. Clarke

Every once in a while, there comes a disruptive technology which changes the established order  –3D printing or additive manufacturing is one such tsunami which threatens to bring turbulent changes to our world.

3D Printing stands for a group of techniques which create or print” objects by building layers of material based on digital designs. From Stereolithography  (SLA) which comprises laser or UV light rays being aimed at a pool of light sensitive polymer  to Selective Laser Sintering  (SLS)which allows objects to be printed out of constituents in powder form layer by layer hence making it suitable for complex parts such as those found in jet engines to Inkjet Bioprinting – 3D printing is rapidly turning mainstream.

3D printing ticks all the right boxes of disruptive technology change – It is changing rapidly : From the invention of Stereolithography by Charles Hull some 30 years ago,  the pace of change has quickened  in recent years after the expiration of certain key patents in 2009. Witness :  Ford printed their 500,000th part – an engine cover for a Mustang in December 2013. It affects a broad swathe of industries : 3D P  has a broad potential scope of impact – from Aerospace & Defence to Healthcare  to jewellery manufacturing all sectors are giddy with anticipation and frantically experimenting with the possibilities.  It has a large potential economic impact : Estimated of the economic potential vary from 250 to 500 Billion USD  by the end of the next 10 years. It has a large potential for disruptive economic impact : 3D P will transform several industries  either in structure say by changing value drivers & supply chains but its greatest impact will be in industries with low volume, highly customisable and complex parts or end-products.  Some of the products or parts which are firmly within the cross-hairs are medical implants ( think dentures) or engine parts.

3D P advantages are obvious : reduction in costs for prototyping, development and reduction of wastage, since the product is built ground up instead of developing the tooling and molds prior to the development.   Improved product quality & design,  increased speed to market and improved communication and confidentiality on the product development.

While consumer products like toys, jewellery accessories like frames come to mind as the products most suited for 3D P, most of the value seem to be in industries like aircraft or automobile manufacturing  even mining and oil-drilling. The most exciting and valuable opportunities lie in healthcare – body part printing – 3D P  customised hearing aids have already crossed the 1 million mark while  acetabular hip cups (50,000) & dental  appliances 50-60,000 a day. In the foreseeable future, printing organs using a patient’s own cells will reduce risk of rejection as well as reducing the wait time for patients.

So are we all sailing towards a spectacular tomorrow with 3D P. It depends. A lot of the projections are based on the current perceived trajectory of printing materials becoming mainstream and hence cheaper and that of build speeds reaching economic  viability. Development of new industries is not simply a matter of technological capabilities – if that were so commuter space travel would be as commonplace  as airline travel- but that of economic  viability. In many cases this depends on supporting and adjacent capabilities : 3D Designs being freely available and tradeable much like a exchange for designs- like thingiverse  and ponoko , 3D scanners becoming better and cheaper and finally patent law & government regulations being favourable.

Part of the limited growth in the use of 3D P has been the tight control of printer & material manufacturers using patents. This is set to change and is forcing the manufacturers to think of new ways to monetise their investments by setting up market places or go-to-3D print shop chains. Even as increasing investment & innovation bring the consumer end of the market to everyone’s homes – 3D scanners on smartphones & cheaper off the shelf-printers are already showing the way- the manufacturers will have to increasingly thinks of ways of differentiating their offerings.

How will 3D printing play out in  India?  Given our abstruse labour laws and the implicit automation of work  many businessmen will attempt 3D manufacture particularly for high value, high lead time, low volume parts replacing possible labour employment. Given the global nature of 3D printing a lot of the actual printing work may be shifted to countries like India where labour and power costs are less while the design work remains  in developed nations. To avail the opportunities the government will have to work out a legal & regulatory framework which will assist the partnership between vendors, regulators, OEMS and trade unions. There is a crying need to look at the patent laws to invite businesses to invest into the countries. Finally, there need to be requisite regulation to monitor end usage since 3D printing has been and could be used to make handgun.

In summary, 3D P is here to stay and the winners in this race will be the ones who embrace the change are agile and focus on the basics.

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