Whatever happened to 3D printing? Just a few years ago, it seemed as though everyone from TechCrunch to Wall Street was predicting that manufacturing as we knew it was over. But as stock prices collapsed, the sentiment has been more along the lines of Newsweek’s recent article, “The 3D Printing Bubble May have Burst.” Don’t respond to 3D printing’s initial overhype, however, with even more dramatic overcorrection.
While attention has turned to chatbots and automated vehicles, there have been significant advances in the cost, speed, and quality of 3D printing. Moreover, the stable of “printable” materials has expanded beyond plastics to include metals, ceramics, glass, carbon fiber, and many others. This expansion has enabled 3D printing to move beyond prototyping and towards deployment as a final production tool. 3D printing has become more accessible and applicable to a host of new enterprises; and companies have been quietly using it to reinvent their business models and supply chains.
To be sure, 3D printing will never replace mass manufacturing. It will always be cheaper to stamp out millions of standardized plastic solo cups than to 3D print them, but the second you want to emboss your company logo on a few hundred the scale starts to tip. For customized or complex, low volume jobs, the advantage goes to 3D printing, which has a high variable cost, but low fixed cost (of machine tooling). Fun fact: it costs just as much to 3D print a jet engine as it does to print a giant paperweight that uses the same amount of material.
Enterprises across industries are taking advantage of this. Boeing currently has 30,000 non-flight-critical 3D-printed aircraft parts flying today. Components that once comprised dozens of separate parts (nuts, bolts, etc.) can be combined into a single print—saving weight and, in turn, fuel. 3D printing spare parts can also be more efficient than predicting the potential need and manufacturing enough replacements—especially when you no longer have to manage the inventory.
Logistics companies see an opportunity here, too. UPS and Royal Mail, among others, offer 3D printing services to their customers. A company in China, for instance, can send a digital file to the UK and print products locally for a London-based client. This opens new markets for items—like bracelets and toys—that were once prohibitively expensive to ship. Medical companies are even able to more efficiently customize hearing aids, Invisoline braces, surgical implants, custom prosthetics—just to name a few.
In an earlier blog post, Steve Vassallo alluded to the true long-term potential of 3D printing as a technology platform that can “create whole new categories of products.” Indeed, opportunities abound for 3D printing entrepreneurs to discover new business models leveraging the technology. But with these new business models come new challenges. As more enterprises and industries adopt 3D printing, they will need to prepare for two key ones: security and printer management.
Finding a way to keep 3D printing secure is important, because the value of a 3D printable file is far higher than a traditional computer aided design (CAD) file. If a CAD file is leaked outside an organization, the final product will still require a great deal of machining and conversion by competitors to reproduce. But if a 3D printing file gets exposed, all anyone has to do is hit “print.” As enterprises begin to adopt 3D printing, most will have to outsource production to 3rd party services, and they should be sure that their partner’s security robust.
Bringing 3D printing capabilities in-house comes with difficult questions of management. What types of printers are you going to use? Where are you going to locate them? Who can edit or download files? How do you prioritize print requests? And of course, there is a basic question: can we create something that’s printable in the first place?
Entrepreneurs that can develop solutions to these these security obstacles or help with internal printer and digital asset management have a tremendous opportunity with enterprise clients. And we’re already seeing companies like 3DprinterOS and Identify3D begin to tackle these issues. In the end, the old business cliché rings true: there’s no such thing as problems—just opportunities.
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About the author: Daniel Jacker was founder and CEO of The 3D Printing Company, an online platform designed to make 3D printing more accessible. After The 3D Printing Company, Danny started the 3D printing strategy practice at Accenture, where he helped Fortune 500 companies and government agencies adopt 3D printing across their enterprises. Danny is currently a second-year MBA student at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is spending his summer as an associate at Foundation Capital.