The many layers of 3D printing - what’s the reality for industrial manufacturing?
08 May 2015
The possibilities raised by 3D printing have clearly captured the imagination of the public and the press. While speculation about what the technology’s impacts could be ranges from the wildly improbable (eg the death of factories) to the near-miraculous (eg printed human organs), there’s no doubt that 3D printing is going to have an impact in many different areas of people’s lives. As the price-point of simple 3D printers continues to fall, we already see greater adoption in non-industrial applications such as custom hearing aids and dentistry applications.
However, industrial applications are still very limited. Most manufacturing companies are already well aware of, and many are using, various different forms of 3D printing. Many of them are making use of it in rapid prototyping as a relatively cheap and efficient way of bypassing traditional fabrication techniques to test new designs, parts and components.
However, as the technology evolves, new applications and uses are beginning to emerge that will have a far more profound impact. The ability to print using metals is a case in point. By ‘printing’ very fine metal powder (for example powdered titanium) and then using lasers to melt those deposits of powder layer by layer into the required shapes, the potential for industrial manufacturers to create wholly new components is limitless. The market for such metal printing technologies is growing at over 25% per annum, and the UK is already home to some manufacturers leading the field and pushing the use of the technology in exciting new ways.
So what are the strategic implications of the technology for the future? For OEMs, we would point to two main areas. The first is design. For example, some of the leading aerospace manufacturers are already redesigning components to achieve significantly lighter engines and are planning for even greater reductions that will have a substantial impact on aircraft efficiency. Through its ability to deliver stronger and lighter shapes and structures that are simply not possible with normal manufacturing processes, 3D printing offers designers and engineers completely new ways to innovatively address challenges. Of course, this is still very far from mass production. 3D printing will continue for some time to come to be most readily adopted in one-off, custom and small batch production as the constraints of the technology today – ie speed of production and range of materials –persist. Many industrial products are highly specialised and low volume in nature; as costs come down, 3D printing techniques will find more and more applications in this sector
The second major impact of 3D printing will, in our view, be its use in servicing OEMs’ aftermarkets. Creating suitable spare parts on demand, from a global CAD system, will enable the company’s local service centres to download a design for a specific part and have it printed locally. Manufacturers will be able to support their customers quicker and at a lower cost. They will, for example, no longer need to maintain expensive inventories in local markets or commit to the inefficient manufacture of a huge range of highly specialised, but rarely required, parts.
Aerospace manufacturers are unquestionably leading the industrial applications of 3D printing today. They’re avidly and productively exploring its potential for creating lighter components and harnessing the technology’s ability to transform what were complex multi-element components into pieces that can be created in a single process. However, as innovations start to cascade down into the broader industrial supply chain, all players – large and small – will need to think about how they too can use 3D printing in their product portfolio to improve, diversify and differentiate what they can offer to their current and future markets. The possibilities for small batch and customised manufacturing are clear. The time to start experimenting is now.
See our recent PwC study which looks at the way Industrial Manufacturers perceive this new technology, how they think it will change their business and what the barriers are to greater adoption of the technology