Thirty years ago, 3D printing was considered something that was only seen in science fiction. However, it has arrived, and it is progressing in a very fast pace. Multi-material colour printing was just introduced, and carbon fibre printing is well on its way. For industries that work with composites, this provides many new opportunities as well as new challenges.
The replicator is here
3D printers offer more than just the concept of producing something out of thin air, like the replicators seen on Star Trek. They help manufacturers make major improvements in less time.
One of the biggest benefits of 3D printing is its ability to make prototypes. It costs a lot to print in 3D, and it cannot compete with other methods that use less expensive mass production techniques. However, this is the best method to make unique prototypes. There is no need to set up complicated machinery to make the prototype by hand. The design can go from an image on the computer to something that is physically real for further design and testing.
It also lets manufacturers explore new designs that were too complicated for traditional machines to make. A printer for 3D foods recently showed in a consumer electronic show that it can produce candies in shapes that traditional methods cannot manufacture. For the candy maker, this offers them one more way for candy design, and this provides potential in other manufacturing areas.
This provides great potentials in moving toward more streamlined manufacturing. 3D printing demonstrates a lot of the design principles used by the by Toyota Production System and other subsequent efficient manufacturing systems. It cuts down moving one part in production to another part, and it lets the same line of production produce different products seamlessly. The amount of products made can match whatever the customer wants. If the cost can be further reduced, this can transform the way society manufactures products.
Bigger does not mean better
Lean manufacturing by 3D challenges manufacturers who use traditional methods, but the biggest challenge lies in the problem of copying.
As 3D printing is combined with 3D scanning, this gives individuals and unknown companies the ability to buy a brand name product, scan it, than prodcue their own copies. The abuse can be seen in the entertainment industry which battles piracy every single day. In the digital age, major corporations are losing the grip on their intellectual property. They find it difficult to control its use because copying has been simplified. Manufacturers will face similar challenges.
How companies respond to intellectual property challenges
How do manufacturers address this threat to their intellectual property?
The first thing to do is to fight the challenge to prevent illegal copying. The court battles of the maker of Candy Crush Saga, King, are a good example. The fight is ugly. Although major companies usually win, their public image suffers from damage.
The more flexible approach is to accept the fact that new designs will be copied sooner or later. Manufacturers can employ highly skilled designers who work tirelessly to come up with new innovations and improvements to the products. Making the use of 3D printing allows them to do bring innovations quickly to the market. This keeps the competitors at bay, and it improves the company’s reputation as being an innovator in the industry. This option is viable for large and small manufacturers alike. Their fate is not left in the hands of the courts.
3D printer is here to stay, and the fast pace of change will transform the way manufacturing is approached. This huge wave cannot be stopped. For the manufacturers, they face the ultimate questions: will they ride the wave, or will they just sit by and let the wave overtake them?
Amy Rice writes about 3d printing, when not writing she enjoys playing adventure golf and dining out with friends.