IDC has recently recorded increasing interest in 3D printing-related topics and opportunities from the media and manufacturing audience across Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (CEMA). Back in the 1980s, 3D printing started as a production alternative for the creation of prototypes in various manufacturing facilities. Today, 3D printing technology is still used primarily for prototyping and distributed manufacturing, but we are seeing original and valuable applications in construction, architecture, industrial design, the automotive industry, aerospace, engineering, the military, medical industries, fashion, footwear, jewelry, art, education, food, and many other fields. As a response to rising demand, we are providing a short insight article reflecting the most important questions received, pointing out where 3D printing technology is heading, and explaining what it brings to manufacturers.
An exact model of a future product can be accurately printed using a 3D printer, thereby achieving significantly lower costs than other conventional prototyping methods. When it comes to mass production, 3D printing poses no threat to modern manufacturing models. Firstly, 3D printing remains a relatively time-consuming operation. Based on the quality and size of a given model, the printing time can range from several hours to tens of hours. Secondly, unit production costs remain constant and are much higher than in the case of mass production. The applications of 3D printing in manufacturing are not aimed to compete with current production models, but rather are designed as complementary technologies that can help to drive efficiency in product development, machine maintenance, spare parts supply, and other areas. Leading manufacturing companies, for example, can learn to realize the benefits involved in independent printing of unique parts, reducing the need for outsourcing and increasing their own flexibility. This can enhance lead times and quality (by the precise adjusting of printing parameters), reduce the complexity of manufacturing process, and speed up the delivery of the end product to a customer. 3D printing simply brings a new wave of flexibility and efficiency into various manufacturing industries.
We have already seen interesting applications of 3D printing, and there are basically no boundaries for use. Many companies that are now leveraging this technology are developing unique, and in many respects, creative ways of designing 3D print applications. In addition, several progressive artists have demonstrated the magic of 3D printing in their artistic works. As originality of the product design plays a great role in differentiating products on the market, this technology seems to be the perfect fit and thus deserves to be more deeply explored by manufacturers.
The 3D printing process starts well before the 3D printer is actually used. 3D modeling tools are essential in the design phase, and companies must first carefully choose and master these tools before they can be able to develop the applicable models. In terms of skills, the efficient use of 3D printing in manufacturing is a rather long-term process that involves a lot of engineering and testing. However, once these advanced capabilities have been developed, the results can be easily transferred and the models can immediately be printed anywhere in the world.
The increasing popularity of 3D printing is also supported by the fact that the price of these machines is decreasing, and smaller models for home users are now appearing on the market. The range of materials available today for 3D printing is also developing dynamically, and already includes many types of plastic, foam, metal, wood, glass, and paper. Nevertheless, focusing on the discovery of new applications for 3D printing and developing internal design capabilities are regarded as more viable long-term strategies for leveraging this technology. Investing in the ownership of expensive top-notch 3D printers can be easily offset by outsourcing the printing process to a locally established third party. At this point in time, the hardware costs still destroy many otherwise valuable business cases.
Another important factor that will drive the market is the expiration of many patents. In February 2014, a number of key patents that prevented competition in the market for the most sophisticated and functional 3D printers expired. These patents include a technology known as laser sintering, which is the lowest-cost 3D printing technology. Due to its high resolution, laser sintering can create goods that can be sold as finished products. As these key patents continue to expire, we can expect to see a significant drop in the price of such devices, which is exactly what happened when the key patents on a more basic form of 3D printing - known as fused deposition modeling (FDM) - expired. The result was an explosion in sales of open-source FDM printers, including MakerBot and RepRap. In just a few years after the patents expired, the price of the cheapest FDM printers decreased from many thousands of dollars to just a couple of hundred dollars.
Co-authored by Zdenek Krouzel, Research Analyst, Imaging Devices & Document Solutions, Central and Eastern Europe