Much attention has been directed toward 3-D printing lately from various industries because of its potential to add business value. In this context, business value can be defined as the monetary value of a product manufactured through 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Though 3-D printing is not used across all industries, it is considered important for industries such as aerospace, aviation, medical and manufacturing. Industries have been placing importance on 3-D printing because now rapid prototyping is possible and the printed 3-D products can be used as a finished product for which customers can be charged. These products have been used in many products rolled out in the aviation, aerospace and manufacturing industries. (To learn more about uses of 3-D printing, see A Different Way Of Looking at the Impact of 3-D Printing.)

What Is 3-D Printing?

There are a number of ways to 3-D print a digital file. Some of the existing methods are fused deposition modeling (FDM), fused filament fabrication (FFF), PolyJetting and selective laser sintering (SLS). However, FDM, FFF and SLS are the most popular methods because they are cheaper and easier to use.

The name additive manufacturing is quite appropriate, because a 3-D object is made by a 3-D printer adding one layer after another until the entire object is completed. It is something like depositing 2-D layers one after another and adding the third dimension, the Z axis or the depth.

The wonders 3-D printing is capable of are extensive, especially considering the fact that they are being used in extremely complex objects and machinery. For example, Airbus is using 3-D printers to print parts for its new A350 XWB aircraft. The first of this type of aircraft was delivered in December 2014, and it had more than 1,000 3-D printed parts. So, it is evident just how efficient and precise 3-D printed products can be.

Potential of 3-D Printing

Manufacturers across such industries as dental, automotive, high tech, medical products, aviation and aerospace are investing in 3-D printing because of its potential. For example, in the medical industry, 3-D printing is already being used to make hip and bone implants and even skin, tissues, organs and pharmaceuticals. Given below are some statistics that point to the huge potential of 3-D printers:

  • GE plans to mass produce more than 25,000 LEAP engine nozzles for aircraft using 3-D printing technology. To achieve its goals, it has been investing more than $22 billion.
  • There are different forecasts on the growth of 3-D printing, but what is common across these forecasts is the acknowledgement of the tremendous potential. According to equity market analysts, the projection is $7 billion by 2020, while according to another group, the growth could be $21.3 billion by 2020.
  • According to Wohler’s report in 2014, the 3-D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.07 billion in revenue in 2013 to $12.8 billion by 2018 and then to $21 billion in 2020.

Business Expectations From 3-D Printing

From the perspective of the industries that use or plan to use 3-D printing, the potential of 3-D printing is encouraging, but there are certain expectations that the 3-D printing industry needs to fulfill. The main expectations are:

  • 3-D printed products should no longer be just a technological novelty. Its potential has been acknowledged, but it now needs to deliver serious business value. To do that, 3-D printed products should be substantial enough to be used in the finished product. For example, in November 2014, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory installed 3-D printed parts in one of its satellites bound for space. According to Joe Allison, the CEO of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (SDM), “Today 3-D printing is still perceived as a technology solution, but the future of 3-D printing is as a business solution.” SDM provides advanced 3-D printing prototyping and manufacturing services to manufacturing companies who do not have in-house 3-D printing expertise.
  • 3-D printed objects need to be completed sooner than they used to be. 3-D printing has already been used in rapid prototyping, but now its products also need to arrive at the assembly line for end-use production quickly. While the industries using additive manufacturing products may not always expect 3-D printed products to sell on their own, they definitely expect the products to be component parts of products that are ready to go to market.

The above expectations were reflected in a report published by SDM. The report quoted respondents from different industries such as aerospace, medical, automotive and energy. The companies who were represented by the respondents were either already using 3-D printing or planned to use 3-D printing within three years.

Why 3-D Printing Is Considered a Driver of Business

It is interesting to note that 3-D printing, which has been around since 1986, is now becoming a driver of business. Obviously, a lot of changes have happened in the 3-D printing industry to change how 3-D printing is viewed:

  • The most important change has probably been the inclusion of 3-D printed parts into products that are directly made available for the market. This means that 3-D printed parts are being treated as something that has commercial value or can contribute to the commercial value of a product. The examples of the Airbus aircraft given earlier or even that of the satellite from NASA establish how 3-D printed products have been changing.
  • 3-D printers have moved beyond the exclusive club of big corporations with big budgets to the shops of the small entrepreneurs. In other words, 3-D printing has become more affordable. Entrepreneurs around the world have been making wonderful products. More than 20,000 3-D printers have already been registered worldwide, and almost all of those who registered are small entrepreneurs.
  • 3-D printing has completely changed how products are made or how fast the products are made. With 3-D printing, mass production of products at an amazing speed has become possible. For example, to design a new product model with CAD designer, a designer used to take about 15–16 days. With 3-D Web-based tools, that can now be done in 15–16 minutes!
  • 3-D printing has inspired the creation of specific apps. Such apps allow the users to take photos of any object with their smartphones and then 3-D print a copy of that object. For example, 123D Catch is one such app.

It is not difficult to see how 3-D printing has been driving business. It has brought some unique benefits. For one, it has been democratized and is available to entrepreneurs with all types of budgets. Secondly, production speed has increased by leaps and bounds. Third, 3-D products are being used for commercial purposes, so they are adding commercial value. (For more on the history of 3-D printing, see Think 3-D Printing Is Brand New? Think Again.)

Conclusion

It has taken 3-D printing some time to find traction, but it has been gaining a lot of speed. From the perspective of productivity and quality, it has the potential to change industries, especially the manufacturing industry. However, the enthusiasm needs to be tempered with some caution, at least for a few years, as the products are being used in complex products like aircraft and medical machinery. As the 3-D printing industry continues to grow and expand, so too will the ways in which it is used.