How 3D Printing Will Revolutionize Product Design, Blurring the Lines Between Manufacturers and Customers

By John Hornick, author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World

Before 3D printing, products were designed so that they could be made with traditional manufacturing methods, which is called “design for manufacturing.”  3D printing eliminates such limitations and enables manufacturing for design.

This allows designers to create products that never existed before, and to give existing products radically different look and feel. But 3D printers can be used not just by traditional manufacturers but also by their customers.

Consider a company that needs turbine blades used in power generation. The blades need to be replaced from time to time, at great expense. By using 3D printing to repair the blades, the customer no longer needs to buy new ones. This is great for the customer but terrible for the blade manufacturer, and the lines have blurred between manufacturer and customer because the customer has become the manufacturer.

Benefits of 3D Printing Versus Traditional Manufacturing Methods

Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production and its economies of scale, and low labor costs, which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors.

3D printing eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled, and one worker may run an entire roomful of 3D printers.

As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, thereby democratizing manufacturing.

Also, it is no more expensive, per part, to 3D print one part versus a million parts, to customize every part instead of making them all the same and to make highly complex parts, which eliminates the need for economies of scale and low labor costs.

This means there is no advantage and maybe no need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, so thousands or tens of thousands of 3D printing fabricators will pop up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.

Making customized parts and products also works best this way; massive factories are not good at mass customization. They are good at shipping a million of the same part to a few locations. They are not good at shipping a million customized parts – each one different — to a million different locations.

Why Companies Will be Forced to Adapt Their Business Models, or Die

Suppose a customer, or suppose that the military, starts 3D printing its own spare parts rather than buying them from the OEM.

Some OEMs will adapt. Maybe they will start selling 3D printable digital blueprints rather than making parts. They may become digital design companies and close their factories.

Other OEMs will not adapt, as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital imaging revolution. Some companies may be unable to adapt, as many horse-related businesses were unable to do when the automobile came along.

In my book, I use my fictional company, ZeframWD, a manufacturer of warp drives in the next century, to show how 3D printing may force traditional manufacturing companies to adapt their business models.

State-of-the-Art Examples of Uses of This Disruptive Technology

Aerospace

Airbus expects to be 3D printing 30 tons of metal airplane parts by 2018. Its A350 XWB aircraft contains over a thousand 3D printed parts.

The most famous 3D printed part is probably a fuel nozzle 3D printed by GE for the Leading Edge Aircraft Propulsion Engine. By 3D printing this nozzle, 20 parts are reduced to 1, which weighs 25% less than the traditionally manufactured nozzle but is much more durable.

GE expects to use 3D printing to make many more parts for the LEAP engine.  By 3D printing them instead of using traditional methods, the company expects to save one thousand pounds on a six-thousand-pound engine.

Automotive

All major automakers use 3D printing, mostly for rapid prototyping and for making jigs and fixtures used on production lines. For example:

  • BMW also uses 3D printing to make ergonomically efficient tools that reduce worker fatigue and improve efficiency.
  • Bentley used 3D printers for prototyping for many years before 3D printing high-precision metal parts for its EXP 10 Speed 6 luxury coupe.
  • The Oakridge National Lab and the University of Tennessee 3D printed a beautiful Shelby Cobra body.
  • Daihatsu, the Japanese car maker, is offering its Effect Skins project. Using the Daihatsu Copen roadster as the basic design, the project allows owners to apply any one of twelve types of “effect skins” in ten colors to areas of the body panels.
  • Toyota is also using 3D printing to mass-customize the i-Road Personal Mobility Device, its one-person car. Owners will be able to customize many parts, by color, surface texture and possibly shape.

Health Care

Health care has a broad range of 3D printing developments that seems amazing today but that will probably seem commonplace in a few years, as even more impressive advances eclipse them.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center has 3D printed titanium cranial implants and replaced a woman’s jaw with a 3D printed prosthetic. In 2013, doctors replaced 75 percent of a man’s skull with a 3D printed implant made by a company called Oxford Performance Materials. In the United Kingdom, doctors replaced half of the pelvis in a man with a rare type of cancer. Tens of thousands of replacement hip cups have been printed and implanted into patients.

Other 3D printing developments in health care include noses, skin, customized coverings for artificial limbs, cosmetic ears and bionic ears.

About 95% of all hearing aid shells are 3D printed. The molds for about seventeen million teeth aligners are 3D printed every year.

3D printed tracheas and tracheal splints are almost routinely saving newborns with serious breathing problems.  The 3D printers used for this work are not always expensive, high-end machines. Consumer-grade 3D printers and materials have been used for tracheal implants.

A great medical application for 3D printing is surgical models and guides. Models of patient organs are being 3D printed and studied by surgeons before the first incision.

Surgeons at Miami Children’s Hospital 3D printed a replica of a 4-year-old girl’s heart to plan her complicated surgery.

Doctors at Boston’s Children’s Hospital practiced on a 3D printed model of a teenager’s brain before operating on the real thing.

Texas Children’s Hospital 3D printed the hearts, lungs, stomachs, and kidneys of twins conjoined at the chest and abdomen so that surgeons could plan and practice their separation, which was a success.

How 3D Printing May Make the Concept of a Genuine Product Meaningless

How will you know if a product is genuine in a 3D printed world? If a bicyclist cracks his skull using a 3D printed bicycle helmet, or a child chokes on a 3D printed toy part, how will the company or the victim know if it was genuine or a perfect knockoff? In a world where companies sell 3D printed products, blueprints, or both; where blueprints can be obtained from many sources, modified, and remixed; and where such products and blueprints are sold and resold, how will you know if a product is genuine? How will you know if a blueprint is the real deal? In a 3D printed world, what does “genuine” even mean?

Companies may find their products competing not only with their traditional competitors’ products but also with copies of their own products, with customized versions of their own products, with generic substitutes for their own products, and with customized versions of generic substitutes for their own (and their competitors’) products.  Such products could be made by professional counterfeiters, 3D print shops, industrial customers or consumers.

“The Disruption Checklist” for a 3D Printing Revolution

On the industrial side, two things are needed to trigger the disruption of any existing product-based market:

  • The ability to build large things, and hence the need for 3D printers with large build platforms
  • The ability to make either single items quickly or many items simultaneously—that is, speed or scale of production. On both the home and industrial sides, there are some additional requirements for market disruption:
  • Advanced materials (including materials that may not yet exist) that enable the efficient printing of complex structures
  • The ability to print complex, integrated structures, such as smartphones and blenders
  • The ability to print very small things, such as the integrated circuitry of computer chips
  • Hybrid machines that can perform the processes that a 3D printer cannot
  • Innovators, especially the innovators of the future—namely, young people who grow up with 3D printing

My book shows where we stand today.

John Hornick is the author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World. As the founder of Finnegan Law Firm’s 3D Printing Working Group, he advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. Hornick frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and has been recognized as a thought leader in this space. As the only IP attorney selected by the U.S. Comptroller General Forum on Additive Manufacturing, he is also a juror for the International Additive Manufacturing Award.

About John Hornick 1 Article
John Hornick is the author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World. As the founder of Finnegan Law Firm’s 3D Printing Working Group, he advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. Hornick frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and has been recognized as a thought leader in this space. As the only IP attorney selected by the U.S. Comptroller General Forum on Additive Manufacturing, he is also a juror for the International Additive Manufacturing Award.