Additive Manufacturing: Time to Hop on the 3D Printing Bandwagon?


With the news that America MakesOpens a new window a Pentagon-backed research initiative, has launched a third center to develop 3D printing technology – this time for aerospace applications – is it time for your business to take a hard look at the technology’s opportunities?

It all depends on how close your business is to the epicenter of disruption.

When 3D printing started in the mid ’80s, it caught the eye of designers of all kinds because a 3D printer opened the possibility to create their own prototypes without the need to wait for someone else to produce them.

That gave the push to the market. The pull came from the major printer manufacturers because anyone claiming dominance in the printing market had to jump on board quickly. Since digital was already transforming traditional print across the newspaper and book worlds, it was an inevitable step for printer makers to take their expertise to 3D – or find themselves left behind.

Manufacturers, too, began to take an interest in the process, and 3D printing was re-branded with the more industry-appropriate name of additive manufacturing.

Whatever it’s called, the technology produces objects by adding layers of material rather than molding or casting materials and disposing the excess.

The manufacturing segment of industry could see the benefits…and the disruption. Instead of endless machine-tooling costs and waste materials, a factory could simply change the program in the printer and churn out new parts.

Is it competitive?

Yes, cost is still an issue, but it’s coming down. A 3D printer has found its niche and is firmly embedded at the custom end of the production line, from hard-to-mold objects to short-run designs.

And the potential for customization is as endless as the potential consumer market. If you want to trim your designer bookcase a few inches to fit the dimensions of your living room or if you want to add a few custom features to your car’s dashboard, the solutions now exist.

You can’t get more custom than the human mouth. So, as 3D technology did in the automotive, jewelry and tooling industries, among others, it’s taking off in the dental and healthcare world.

It doesn’t stop there. In Amsterdam, construction of a 3D-printed metal bridge is underway, and France already boasts a 3D-printed house.

The technology is breaking through into the mainstream. And that is where the big boys come in.

Who’s investing?

America Makes, the Department of Defense-backed research institute that brings together 220 organizations from industry, academia and government, wants to accelerate the technology in the aerospace industry. It has already helped the U.S. Army launch a program to embed the technology in its supply chains.

The Pentagon is a powerful backer. In the past month, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, few could argue that the technologies that led to Neil Armstrong taking that one giant leap were incubated in the defense industry.

In Germany, where the military is not a powerful player for historical reasons, things are done differently. Major industrial player Siemens has just been put in charge of the country’s industrial additive manufacturing planOpens a new window . In partnership with other players, Siemens will manage a $15.6 million project aimed at enabling additive manufacturing for series, rather than custom, production.

Beyond that, venture capital from the big global companies is pouring into start-ups, looking at the different techniques, designs, equipment and materials used in 3D printing.

The technology is coming of age and nobody wants to be left out. Manufacturing, certainly, is set for transformation, but the ripples will be felt across every conceivable sector of industry. It is difficult to think of an area that won’t eventually be affected by a new way of making things, and the possible customization of, well, everything.

In a weird way, we’re returning to the age before mass production, when everything was custom-made, individual and determined by personal choice. The difference with 3D printing? Cost and abundance.