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How is manufacturing benefiting from 3D printing technology?

Prototyping, speed of innovation and cost savings are all areas in which manufacturers are seeing the benefits of 3D printing technology.

Like other technologies of its ilk, 3D printing can seem veiled in a fog of hype that obscures the fact from the fiction. And yet the technology is poised to revolutionize manufacturing and distribution in some ways; indeed, it's doing so already.

3D printing has rapidly evolved by offering manufacturing and distribution companies alternate substrates and materials to provide a wide range of products. More than just plastic items can now be printed, and size limitations are not as prevalent as when 3D printing was introduced. Industry uses have expanded from specific manufacturing for internal purposes to B2C applications. From a manufacturing perspective, many benefits have been gained, including reduced time to market, prototyping, and all the auxiliary processes such as tooling and die-making.

The automotive industry is an example of how 3D printing technology has really benefitted manufacturing. Indeed, 3D printing has revolutionized automotive prototyping, enabling the prototyping of new shapes. It has also created an important way to identify potential production issues. 3D technology enables organizations to more quickly adjust, identify, create and fix new and existing products, thus speeding innovation. Engineers can take their vision from design to physical embodiment within days rather than months or even years, which were the norms in the past. Prototypes can be used in wind tunnel testing to get preliminary results. They can provide quantitative data, identify concerns such as pillar placement, enable complex capabilities and flexibilities previously not available, provide product customization tests, and identify blind-spot areas, to name just a few uses.

Another industry example of how 3D printing technology is being used is in the medical field. Many believe 3D printing is literally reshaping medicine. For example, being able to print a replacement part where it is needed can avoid the costs and risks of shipping that part from a traditional production facility. Moreover, 3D technology can be used to print medical devices and implants, often for far cheaper than traditional production would be. It's being used to bring medical equipment to impoverished areas. It is also being used to create lifelike models that facilitate medical learning; for example, a 3D model of a brain aneurysm can provide a low-risk means to experiment with different surgical techniques.    

Another area that sees the promise of 3D technology is the distribution industry. It will benefit greatly from 3D printing due to the advancements of materials used and lower costs through reduced inventory, less storage capacity needed, and greater sustainability that this technology offers, especially in the realm of food. 3D printing seems to be solving logistics problems by reducing delivery time, shortening long sourcing lead times for finished products and reduced transportation costs. 

In short, 3D printing offers organizations many potential benefits, including faster innovation, cost reductions, reduced time to market and increased sustainability. As the technology advances, more substrates will become available for printing options, thereby increasing the agility and flexibility of the company and products. 

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This was last published in February 2016

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What about 3D printing do you find exciting or disconcerting?
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We are doing kitchen renovation this year. During design phase, the contractor offered a dozen of samples for cabinet fronts. Then he said something unexpected. "Maybe, next year you'd email me the shapes and I 3D-print them". That was a joke, of course, but felt like something nearly possible.
I wonder when this technology evolves to the point when it could be made a seamless part of recycling process. This would greatly disrupt manufacturing though.
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