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3-D printing leaving its mark on industrial manufacturing

In this Q&A, PwC outlines its findings on 3-D printing's impact on industrial manufacturing.

As the influence and accessibility of 3-D printing continues to spread, the young technology is making its mark on traditional manufacturing. In a new report titled 3-D Printing and the New Shape of Industrial Manufacturing, professional services provider PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) researched the ways U.S. industrial manufacturers are reacting to the growth of 3-D printing as an alternative means of production. SearchManufacturingERP.com Site Editor Brenda Cole spoke with Bob McCutcheon, U.S. industrial products leader for PwC, about the study's findings and what they suggest about 3-D printing's impact on U.S. manufacturing.

Why did you decide to look at 3-D printing and industrial manufacturing?

Bob McCutcheon: One of the topics we've been exploring is the concept of disruptive technology. We're looking forward and trying to understand what the more innovative solutions and dramatic trends in manufacturing may be. We do believe that we're in the early stages of a transformation that could have some significant impacts on manufacturers -- not only in terms of their products, but on the supply chain itself.

There's tremendous potential value in the use of [3-D printing] technology, but it's also going to disrupt certain companies in terms of their product offerings and how the supply chain will need to be revisited. Either way, this is going to be a game changer for manufacturers down the road.

What information did you hope to gather in this survey?

McCutcheon: We were trying to understand, first, how many companies in this sector were actually thinking about the use of 3-D printing and where they saw the future of 3-D printing going. We asked, is this something that is going to be important to the manufacturing sector? Not surprisingly, a significant number -- 63% of the companies -- believed they will use 3-D printing in their process within the next three to five years.

What is the typical profile of a manufacturing organization that is using 3-D printing?

McCutcheon: In these early stages [of adoption], it's mostly the large-size manufacturers that are using it. However, in the report we point out that 99% of manufacturers are actually small-to-midsized companies. And so, there is a huge constituency of those companies that do anticipate using 3-D printing, but for now those numbers are lagging behind larger companies'. There's a gap between these demographics as far as education and knowing how to use [3-D printing].

It was interesting to see that even for the small firms -- in part because of the affordability of this technology and relative ease of use -- this 3-D printing technology can really be good for everyone.

What are some trends in 3-D printing and industrial manufacturing that stood out to you?

McCutcheon: If we go back to some of the shifts in supply chains that took place post-recession -- during the recession, supply chains were really lean -- we found a fundamental shift toward manufacturing closer to the customer. You combine that with other risk factors -- cost of transportation, supply chain disruptions like natural disasters, etc. -- you see a resurgence of manufacturing onshoring and reshoring.

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3-D printing fits directly into that shift because it allows for the manufacturing of products, parts, spares or tools at an on-demand basis right at the source, as opposed to longer lead times and expensive logistics. You can bring that manufacturing right to the customer.

Another trend is on the talent side. Manufacturers have struggled a bit in the last decade when it comes to attracting and retaining key talent. You hear a lot about the skills gap and a problem with how people perceive manufacturing -- blue collar vs. white collar. In truth, manufacturing today has a number of highly technical jobs that require different skill sets than traditional manufacturing jobs. The use of 3-D printing in manufacturing takes that to another level, as it also requires a whole new range of skills and training.

Were there any survey results that you found surprising?

McCutcheon: I probably had a more narrow view of what this technology could accomplish before we started this research. After looking at the findings, it was clear to me that we're still only scratching the surface of what [3-D printing] can accomplish. As it evolves and we have more advanced materials that can be used with this technology, the capabilities down the road are going to be incredible. I really appreciate now how significant this opportunity could be for manufacturers.

What are your predictions for how 3-D printing will impact industrial manufacturing in the future?

McCutcheon: This is going to be a near-term trend, and the impact will be even clearer in a few years. With the pace of change in technology, three years is an eternity.

With any new technology, there are going to be some risks. Intellectual property risks are real, with the ability for anyone to copy products being something that companies will have to think about. This isn't the first time that technology has disrupted the industry this way, but the industry always finds a way to adjust to that disruption.

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I've heard 3D Printing technology likened to the personal computer when it first became available- it wasn't until the consumer got their hands on it did we see and discover through the users what it could do . . . and then there are the visionaries who show us how it can be used. I invested in a 3D Printer 2 years ago for my small business. I like to say that it gets my crew, who make amazing things happen in traditional tool & die and precision machining to "think outside the blocks". The paradigm shift of additive even helped our team to create our first patented products!