The opportunities and challenges that the manufacturing industry must consider when contemplating 3D printing technology. By Graeme Wright

3D printing has been labelled as one of the greatest innovations of our time. Talked about for over three decades, it is only in recent years that we have seen the technology come on to provide tangible result and uses. Where 3D printing once involved printing little plastic trinkets, it now has the capabilities for printing items that can be used in healthcare, electronics, even a full-sized house and 3D printed cement!

It’s no surprise then that 3D printing has caught the attention of manufacturers, who according to latest research from Sculpteo, have increased their investments in 3D printing this year by 70 per cent, compared to just 49 per cent in 2017.

But in an age of mass production driven by intelligent machines, what can 3D printing do for manufacturers that previous advances haven’t already?

The benefits of 3D printing for manufacturers
3D printing offers the opportunity of increased efficiency and rapid prototyping, enabling manufacturers to test, amend and re-test their products much quicker. This speed of production is largely down to the fact that they’re able to make adjustments to the digital design and re-print it in a matter of hours. As a result, manufacturers will be able to take products to market all that much faster, which in the manufacturing industry can be game changing.

More broadly, the sale of spare parts and after sales services could open up a new stream of business. It can also provide a solution for when manufacturers need a temporary fix to help whilst waiting for more permanent parts. We’ll begin to see manufacturers offer services whereby customers are able to access new parts for items on demand, printing them on the basis of need instead of producing on masse and needing to store leftover stock. This may also change the relationship with retailers and manufacturers. As instead of holding stock for thousands of items, they could hold the digital records for a number of items, and print them upon request, creating much more accurate supply and demand business model.

But 3D printing won’t be for everyone
3D printing isn’t the holy-grail answer for the whole industry. It is unlikely that manufacturers of products such as engines, where the quality needs to be irrefutable, will be 3D printed in the immediate or near future. However, products that work against a scalable economy are well suited.

Moreover, the way in which manufacturers manage the digital rights and intellectual property for parts will become a critical factor to their business. Manufacturers need to think about how they are going to effectively control the digital rights of their designs, and how they adjust their business models.

Take iTunes for example, once you buy the song, you have the rights to download that song, but whether you have the rights to produce that song multiple times and make adjustments to it is another matter. Similarly, manufacturers will need to factor in if they are providing the rights for one print, or if the buyer is able to produce the item multiple times. One solution for this challenge could be in Blockchain. Creating a digital record so users know precisely which rights they have for each transaction.

Another consideration for manufacturers will be who is responsible for the warranty of the product. Will the manufacturer who is responsible for the design for instance, be able to provide a warranty on something that someone else has printed? And will manufacturers be able to certify that the product has been produced to the standard that it was initially designed and created to be?

A shifting business model
For manufacturers looking to embrace 3D printing, there is no doubt that their business model will need to evolve. In creating a new relationship between the manufacturers who designed the product, and the end retailer who printed the product, we’ll see an alteration of the whole supply chain from manufacturing to distributing and logistics.

Although in its early stages of being used for mass production, there is no doubt the impact that 3D printing could potentially have on the manufacturing industry. It’s an exciting time to be in manufacturing, with the new developments opening up new doors and potential streams of revenue. It will be interesting to witness which manufacturers embrace a shift in the way they work, and how they will overcome the challenges new relationships bring. One thing is for sure, the world of manufacturing is changing, and those ready to embrace this change will be the ones that spur the industry on for years to come.

Graeme Wright
Graeme Wright is CTO for Manufacturing, Utilities and Services, UK and Ireland, Fujitsu. Fujitsu is the leading Japanese information and communication technology company, offering a full range of technology products, solutions, and services. Approximately 140,000 Fujitsu people support customers in more than 100 countries. Fujitsu uses its experience and the power of ICT to shape the future of society with its customers.