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3-D printing technology in manufacturing: Hype vs. reality

Manufacturing IT experts wade through the fact and fiction around 3-D printing technology.

Three-dimensional printing has rapidly become the technology to watch this past year, attracting manufacturers with its potential uses across widely varying industries and attracting customers with its futuristic promise of a radically new way to shop. With all the buzz about print 3-D-guns and jewelry to prosthetics and even pizza, it's tough to separate reality from fantasy. Just how realistic an option is 3-D printing technology to the average manufacturer and consumer?

To get the full picture of the 3-D printing landscape, manufacturers need to remember that these investments are not just being explored by businesses, according to Kimberly Knickle, practice director at IDC Manufacturing Insights in Framingham, Mass. Low-end 3-D printers are attainable for consumers who have cash to spare, and universities are starting to use 3-D printing in engineering courses. Such use outside of production facilities will eventually make 3-D printing part of everyday life.

"The next generation of [manufacturing] employees is going to be very comfortable with 3-D printing, and it's something that will become affordable enough to make its way into the home market," she said. "But all of that takes time."

3-D printing technology for manufacturers

On the manufacturing side, 3-D printing could mean a slow -- but inevitable -- transition from the expensive capital investments of heavy machinery to lightweight, portable printer-based production, in which the majority of labor goes into the design process, Knickle said.

"What 3-D printing allows us to do is get to something in manufacturing that we've talked about for a long time, shifting away from producing to stock and mass production to mass customization," Knickle said. "We can start to make products for a market of few or even market of one, because the whole process is compressed through 3-D printing." In other words, by eliminating the need for new machinery and parts for every new product, 3-D printing can allow manufacturers to truly tailor their products to the needs of individual customers.

"We're seeing efforts to speed up manufacturing, to make sure that product lifecycle economics are embedded into that whole process," Knickle said. Three-dimensional visualization tools and better product lifecycle management (PLM) tools have all helped move preproduction from physical to digital models of new products, and that move will flow easily into a 3-D printing-based system. In 10 years, 3-D printing may be the standard used to test new products, she added.

Charles Aquilina, former head of research and development at the Malta Furniture Manufacturers Organisation (MFMO), has firsthand experience with 3-D-printed test models. MFMO has had the 3-D printing system from Ireland-based Mcor Technologies since 2011, and is currently using the MATRIX300 3-D printer to make prototypes of furniture models and accessories, as well as furniture fittings and scale models.

"The advantage of 3-D printing is that it can be used at any stage of product development," Aquilina said. "Product development, design and improvements therefore become a continuous process. Three-dimensional printing can hasten the process of product development and reduce cost and time in bringing finished goods to market."

MFMO is generally pleased with the way 3-D printing has improved its design process, but hopes that in the future, the process will be faster. Today, printing models can take many hours or even days for larger pieces.

Barriers in the way of 3-D technology adoption

It may be tempting to throw a large chunk of the IT budget behind such an exciting new technology, but experts caution against going overboard. "[3-D printing] is a very cool technology with a lot of potential, but we're still in the early days," Knickle said.

"Three-D printing is definitely here to stay," said Pete Basiliere, research director of imaging and print services at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. "The problem is that the hype around the consumer end of 3-D printing obscures the real value that enterprises can get from it." And 3-D printers are still not affordable to the average consumer -- and might not be for some years.

Price isn't the only barrier between 3-D printing and most consumers, according to Basiliere. There is a learning curve to be conquered. Three-D printers are not as plug-and-go as traditional 2-D printers, and consumers must also buy, install and learn software for the 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) models that tell the printer what to do.

"Is [3-D printing] worth investing in when the majority of products are not going to have a market of one? It's going to be a long time before people really have these in their homes," Knickle said. According to Basiliere, Gartner estimates that it will be five to 10 years before 3-D printers become affordable enough for widespread home use.

A 3-D reality check

Some kinks need to be worked out before 3-D printing can become a fact of life for the average manufacturer, according to Knickle. One is quality of the 3-D prints, meaning how well they hold up to the test of time and endurance versus traditionally manufactured products. Another is where and how the printers will fit into the manufacturing organization. Will new facilities have to be built around them, or can they live in corporate headquarters?

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There are also limitations on the materials that can be used to make 3-D prints. Right now, most vendors are working with industrial plastic and, less frequently, limited metal alloys. This can put a damper on creative design on both the manufacturer and consumer end.

"Unlike a 2-D printer, where you can put in a wide range of papers, a 3-D printer is restricted to the materials that run in that particular printer," Basiliere said. "The consumer may have a lot of great ideas of what she wants to create, but that will always be gated by the one or two materials that printer can use."

Beyond these obstacles, the 3-D-printed elephant in the room is what the technology could mean for traditional manufacturing. When 3-D printers become as common in the home as inkjet printers, will shop floors and production lines become a thing of the past? And will millions of jobs disappear because of it? Basiliere thinks that doomsday scenario is unlikely. While it's believable that 3-D printing will eventually mature from something done mainly in an outside facility to the home, he doesn't believe it means the end of manufacturing as we know it.

"The consumer can create [designs], and that's great, but there are some things that they either don't have the talent for or the tools to produce," he said. For more complicated items, it may become common practice for the consumer to design them and for an outside service bureau to print them on their behalf. Enterprises that need large orders will still rely on manufacturers to produce -- or print -- these items in bulk, Basiliere said.

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