Until recently, 3D printing was only utilized by product designers and hobbyists working primarily with plastics and was not available to the mass market. With the recent price drop of 3D printers and availability of 3D printing materials, the popularity of 3D printing has dramatically increased in the last couple of years. It has been estimated that 3D printing could generate an economic impact of $230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025 (McKinsey Global Institute, 2012).
Much like an inkjet printer, a 3D printer “prints” a set of plans on a computer by using “additive manufacturing.” The additive manufacturing process builds objects layer-by-layer rather than through molding or subtractive techniques (such as machining) (McKinsey Global Institute, 2012). Additive manufacturing is attractive for producing items that are hard to find or when only a few like items are needed because the cost of production remains the same whether someone prints one or many, or if the item is old or new.
To determine if 3D printing can be the next big disruptive technology, we must look at the advantages of 3D printing, current and future capability of 3D printing and what industries would most likely be disrupted by 3D printing. When these questions have been satisfactorily been answered we can further ask:
• What are the risks of 3D printing? How might this product fail?
• What can be done to make 3D printing succeed?
The main advantage of 3D printing is that a low number of goods can be produced at a relatively inexpensive cost, as compared to traditional manufacturing, which typically requires higher volume to lower costs (Grynol, 2013). 3D printing can skip many traditional manufacturing steps and go directly from an idea to a finished product resulting in reduced lead time and rapid prototyping. 3D printing also reduces the amount of wasted material because the additive manufacturing process the 3D printers employ only uses materials needed to make the product.
Businesses potentially reducing overhead and offering mass customization of their products are a couple of other advantages of 3D printing. With 3D printing being an on-demand manufacturing process, the overhead required to invest in inventory, and warehouse it is reduced since items can be printed as needed. Traditional manufacturing methods typically require a larger volume of inventory to be produced and warehoused at one time (Grynol, 2013). Customizing a product will require minimal financial investment and effort allowing customers to get exactly what they want at a low cost. People are already printing action figures with their likeness by using a picture of their face that is imported to the 3D program.
Printing your own action figure is just one of many breakthroughs in 3D printing. Amoung the most notable are:
• NASA made rocket engine parts with a 3D printer and plans to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station this year.
• Companies started printing...