It’s time to prepare for the age of 3D printing

No longer the preserve of start-ups and tech blog hype, 3D printing is increasingly becoming a reality and is set to disrupt businesses across sectors.


From producing custom-sized parts to nearly instantaneous transportation of those parts, 3D printing has long promised to disrupt established industry right up and down the supply chain, from production to delivery to sales. Yet it has been talked about for so long now, some may feel that this is a technology that was more hype than reality.

To take such a view would be a mistake. 3D printing is no longer the preserve of research labs and fast-moving start-ups – according to data collected by EY, 36% of major companies are already applying or looking to apply 3D printing in their operations. 

3D printing isn’t just disrupting manufacturing

In the long run, any physical product stands to be disrupted by 3D printing. At its simplest, 3D printing is analogous to a teleporter, able to transmit the designs of any product instantly to any printer in the world.

This has clear implications for the global shipping and supply industry. It also potentially threatens any consumer products business. When any product can, theoretically, be infinitely copied, a whole universe of physical retail is opened to the same kind of forces that have so widely disrupted areas such as music and journalism. And when that copying is extended to items such as weapons, as it has been, even regulators and lawmakers need to mindful.

But it’s not just these more obvious sectors that are seeing disruption from 3D printing. The world of health care and medicine is one surprising industry that has found itself at the forefront of innovative uses of this new technology, proving that it has many more uses than simply manufacturing:

  • 3D printing can make bespoke casts for broken bones that are able to change shape as the bones heal.
  • It can be used to produce precisely engineered orthopaedic shoes.
  • There are even steps toward bio-printing, where substances such as muscle and cartilage can be printed. It is already being used to print highly specific components, such as heart valves and replacement bones.
  • It promises to be particularly useful in remote, rural areas, where a lack of transport links can leave communities stranded many hours from a hospital. A 3D printer could provide bespoke medical supplies on the spot. 

Engineering and construction are also seeing early signs of disruption:

  • 3D printing is opening up new methods of construction, using new materials put together in more efficient, computer-designed ways that increase strength and sustainability.
  • It can speed up production times by allowing parts to be constructed on-site, rather than relying on remote manufacturing and delivery delays.
  • It can enable remote engineering teams to collaborate much more effectively (parts can essentially be faxed across the word for continued work).
  • Aftermarket repairs and spare parts can be prepared and delivered quickly and efficiently. 
  • Engineering advances enabled by 3D printing are also creating value in other industries. For instance, ultra-light, “honeycombed” printed components are beginning to be used in aeronautics to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. 

Why – and how – you need to start thinking in 3D

If 3D printing delivers on even a fraction of is disruptive potential, it will still mean the upturning of a whole range of business and industrial landscapes. Companies need to get on board now if they are able to survive this.

The disruption is happening quickly. For instance, the entire US hearing aid industry switched to 3D printing in around 500 days. Similarly radical transformations can be expected in areas such as aerospace and construction, and a whole swathe of medical subsectors, if companies don’t get on board now.

What companies need to do now is:

  • Start thinking strategically about how 3D printing could impact their industry
  • Plan how 3D-printing approaches can be effectively implemented
  • Develop change management strategies for transforming into a business that properly understands the potentials of 3D printing and puts it at the center of relevant operations 

This could include appointing officers for 3D printing and developing road maps for implementation, and carefully looking at individual business and industrial functions to evaluate their appropriateness for 3D transformation, as with digital transformation over the last few years.

Once a road map has been drawn and a strategy outlined, more concrete steps to prepare for 3D implementation could include standardizing software and hardware to allow different departments of a business to communicate clearly with each other. New supply chains and physical infrastructure will likely need to be put in place, as will cybersecurity solutions.

The unanswered questions of 3D printing

On top of this are the regulatory and legal complications that any new technology might face. For instance, for a multinational corporation, should IP laws apply where a 3D product is designed or where it is printed? Tax models are currently being modified to accommodate digital products, but do 3D-printed products count as digital or physical for tax purposes?

These kinds of questions are currently being asked by regulators, and the answers may vary from country to country. In this globalized, digital world, organizations must keep track of, and understand, the emerging legal and regulatory landscape of 3D printing if they are to make the most of its potential. Otherwise, the downsides of this rapidly emerging technology’s disruption could be significant.

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