3D printing adds new dimensions to every business

As 3D printing reshapes companies' entire value chains, businesses that don't take advantage of this disruptive technology risk missing out.

3D printer is printing a red teapot

What sectors would benefit from using 3D printing technology? Just about all of them, says Dr. Susanne Wosch, EY Senior Manager, Advisory Services, Strategy, Innovation Management.

Companies’ entire value chains, Wosch says, are being affected by 3D printing, and she warns that businesses that don't take advantage of the huge potential of this disruptive technology risk losing out. “If you don’t use it, one of your competitors will.”

Additive manufacturing has been around for almost 30 years, but it is only with the rise of digital technology that it has really come into its own. It has multiple possible applications, from rapid prototyping to marketing, where, for instance, a company could print sample packaging to show its clients.

Faster, cheaper, easier

There are many advantages of producing items using 3D printing rather than conventional manufacturing processes. A major one: it simplifies and shortens the production process — the product is printed in one go, even if it has moving parts, so there is no need for assembly. It also reduces costs: You don’t have to pay for and store items “just in case”; instead, you print them only as and when you need them.

From chocolate to titanium

The variety of materials now used for 3D printing is also increasing. Polymers, metals (including titanium), ceramics, chocolate and even living cells can all be employed. The possible applications are endless. For example, “bones” can be printed to replace hip and knee joints, and researchers are now developing 3D-printed tubes made from living cells to replace damaged blood vessels.

Wosch predicts 3D printing will radically alter business models.

“If I design furniture, I produce the product, sell it and then send it to the customer. But now, consumers expect more individualized products," she says. "Perhaps the customer designs the furniture herself, or maybe you send the data to her and she prints it herself in the colors and materials she wants. Just imagine — no storage costs, no transportation costs.”

Hot topic

Wosch says 3D printing is a hot topic across all industries, although in many cases, businesses need some help in ensuring that their employees are on the same page when it comes to adopting the new technology.

“What we are hearing is that companies often find there are ‘submarine projects’ where one part of the business has bought a 3D printer to experiment with but hasn’t discussed it with the rest of the company," she says. "We help people understand the impact of these disruptive technologies on their business.”

For an array of businesses, the impact of 3D printing will be a profitable one. After all, as many will attest, it pays to embrace new dimensions.