Industrial 3-D printing is at a tipping point, about to go mainstream in a big way. Most executives and many engineers don’t realize it, but this technology has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling, trinkets, and toys.
The beginnings of the revolution show up in a 2014 PwC survey of more than 100 manufacturing companies. At the time of the survey, 11% had already switched to volume production of 3-D-printed parts or products. According to Gartner analysts, a technology is “mainstream” when it reaches an adoption level of 20%.
More companies will follow as the range of printable materials continues to expand. In addition to basic plastics and photosensitive resins, these already include ceramics, cement, glass, numerous metals and metal alloys, and new thermoplastic composites infused with carbon nanotubes and fibers. Superior economics will eventually convince the laggards. Although the direct costs of producing goods with these new methods and materials are often higher, the greater flexibility afforded by additive manufacturing means that total costs can be substantially lower.
With this revolutionary shift already under way, managers should now be engaging with strategic questions on three levels:
First, sellers of tangible products should ask how their offerings could be improved, whether by themselves or by competitors.
Second, industrial enterprises must revisit their operations.
Third, leaders must consider the strategic implications as whole commercial ecosystems begin to form around the new realities of 3-D printing.
Within the next five years we will have fully automated, high-speed, large-quantity additive manufacturing systems that are economical even for standardized parts. Owing to the flexibility of those systems, customization or fragmentation in many product categories will then take off, further reducing conventional mass production’s market share.
Smart business leaders aren’t waiting for all the details and eventualities to reveal themselves. They can see clearly enough that additive manufacturing developments will change the way products are designed, made, bought, and delivered. They are taking the first steps in the redesign of manufacturing systems. They are envisioning the claims they will stake in the emerging ecosystem. They are making the many layers of decisions that will add up to advantage in a new world of 3-D printing.