Manufacturing used to be seen as an industry that required a great deal of capital, but as 3D printing takes off, companies may be able to reduce manufacturing costs while creating innovative products because it is much easier to create prototypes. Additive manufacturing is the process of building objects by adding thin layers on top of each other based on a computerized design, MIT Technology Review stated. On a large scale, this technique is used to produce specialized medical implants and to produce plastic prototypes for engineers and designers.
Some major manufacturers are starting to move some production to 3D printing. General Electric will be producing jet engine nozzles with lasers rather than the traditional method of casting and welding metals, according to the source. Conventional manufacturing requires the welding together of 20 separate, small pieces together for the jet engine components, and this is a labor intensive process where much of the material is wasted. 3D printing will provide a way to make more complex shapes while also conserving material. GE expects the new manufacturing technique will give product designers greater flexibility and freedom from traditional manufacturing limitations.
Benefits for small business manufacturing
In addition to large companies like GE, 3D printing could be very significant to small businesses because it allows entrepreneurs to make a prototype with ease, and it can be a way to reduce operating costs for a business, Forbes reported. While additive manufacturing is not new, the reduction of cost in 3D printers is a recent development. Depending on the capability, some 3D printers cost as little as $5,000, making the technology accessible to businesses with less capital.
Manufacturers are constantly seeking ways to achieve cost reduction, and 3D printing will offer new ways to do this because of lower levels of raw material waste, according to Spend Matters. For example, a 3D printer can use only the necessary amount of steel dust to make a metal component rather than carving down a whole steel billet. Manufacturing used to have a great deal of material waste, and 3D printing generates no excess.
Additive manufacturing challenges
Since 3D printing technology has only recently become widely accessible, the capacity is small and printers are typically slow. Projects such as the GE jet engine components will serve as tests to how significant this technology can become as it develops. Since additive manufacturing will enable small-business manufacturing, there could be intellectual property risks, Bloomberg stated. The accessibility of 3D printing could increase chances of counterfeiting. Larger organizations may try to force smaller producers out of business with lawsuits, and there could be the risk of products with questionable quality and safety entering the market. Since 3D printing is less labor-intensive than traditional manufacturing, it could mean fewer assembly line jobs, although ultimately the technology could lead to new opportunities.
3D printing will create new challenges for procurement as manufacturers may eventually be able to reduce their numbers of suppliers. If companies can make an object themselves, there is less incentive to procure a project from a third-party supplier, according to Spend Matters. Mass production of standardized products will likely continue because it will be the most cost-effective option. However, specialty items will have value from complex designs. Manufacturing suppliers that produce complicated products may experience a loss of value when other companies have the internal technology to make these components on their own.
While additive manufacturing is still gaining traction, it is positioned to dramatically change the industry. Small-business manufacturing could benefit from cost reduction and increased capabilities for innovation.