Advanced additive technology is revolutionizing product design and blurring business lines.

Channel Partners

April 18, 2016

7 Min Read
3D Printer

John HornickBy John Hornick

3D printing is here, and it’s poised to change everything. Research firm RnR forecasts a $30.19 billion market by 2022, with almost 30 percent annual growth. Advances in additive technologies and materials are opening incredible new possibilities for academics, health care, manufacturing, government, retail, you name it.

They’re also blurring supply-chain lines in a way that will challenge your customers.

Before 3D printing, traditional production methods meant products had a “design for manufacturing” process. 3D printing enables manufacturing for design. Anyone can easily and quickly prototype new products or give existing items a radically different look and feel. But there are also pragmatic uses. Consider a power plant that depends on turbine blades, which need to be replaced from time to time at great expense. By using 3D printing to repair some blades, the utility no longer needs to buy as many new ones. 

This is great for the customer, terrible for the blade maker. That’s what happens when the line between manufacturer and customer blurs.

This is a fundamental economic shift. Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production, associated economies of scale and low labor costs, all barriers to entry for would-be competitors. Additive technology eliminates those barriers. Now, a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled, and one worker may run an entire roomful of 3D printers.

Massive factories are good at shipping millions of the same part to a few locations. They’re not good at shipping millions of customized parts, each one different, to millions of different locations. And in many cases, right now, it’s no more expensive, per part, to 3D-print one widget versus mass producing 1 million. It’s certainly much less costly to print customized or specialized items. Eventually, there may be no advantage to centralized mass production plants where labor costs are low. Thousands or tens of thousands of 3D printing fabricators may pop up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.

As additive technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, democratizing manufacturing. 3D printing may also make the concept of a “genuine” product meaningless.

Companies will be forced to adapt their business models or die.

Some OEMs will adjust. Maybe they’ll become digital design companies and start selling printable blueprints rather than making parts. Some that could have thrived will not adapt, as Kodak failed to pivot fast enough to digital imaging. Others will go the way of buggy-whip makers when the automobile came along.

In my book, I use a fictional company, ZeframWD, a manufacturer of warp drives in the next century, to show how 3D printing may force traditional manufacturing companies to adapt their business models. But you don’t need to look into the future. There are plenty of real-world, state-of-the-art examples of this disruptive technology.

Aerospace, Automotive, Health Care Lead The Way

Airbus expects to be printing 30 tons of metal airplane parts by 2018 — its A350 XWB aircraft contains over 1,000 3D-printed parts. By printing a fuel nozzle for its Leading Edge Aircraft Propulsion Engine, GE reduced 20 parts to one, which weighs 25 percent less and is much more durable than the traditionally manufactured nozzle. GE expects to use 3D printing to make many more parts for the LEAP engine and as a result save 1,000 pounds on a 6,000 pound engine. 

All major automakers use 3D printing now, mostly for rapid prototyping and making jigs and fixtures used on production lines. BMW prints ergonomically optimized tools that reduce worker fatigue and improve efficiency. The Oakridge National Lab and the University of Tennessee printed a beautiful Shelby Cobra body, while Toyota is using 3D printing to personalize its “i-Road” one-person car. Owners will be able to customize many parts by color, surface texture and possibly shape.

Health care 3D printing developments seem amazing today but will probably be commonplace in a few years, as even more impressive advances eclipse them. 

Walter Reed Army Medical Center has printed titanium cranial implants and replaced a woman’s jaw with a 3D-printed prosthetic. In 2013, doctors replaced 75 percent of a man’s skull with a 3D-printed implant made by a company called Oxford Performance Materials. Tens of thousands of replacement hip cups have been printed and implanted into patients.

Other additive developments in health care include noses, skin and customized coverings for artificial limbs, and bionic ears. About 95 percent of all hearing-aid shells are printed, and printed tracheas and tracheal splints routinely save newborns with serious breathing problems. 

And, the 3D printers used for this work are not necessarily expensive, high-end machines. Consumer-grade printers and materials have been used for tracheal implants.

Surgeons at Miami Children’s Hospital 3D printed a replica of a four-year-old girl’s heart to plan her complicated surgery. Doctors at Boston’s Children’s Hospital practiced on a 3D-printed model of a teenager’s brain before operating on the real thing, and Texas Children’s Hospital printed in 3D the hearts, lungs, stomachs and kidneys of twins conjoined at the chest and abdomen so that surgeons could plan and practice their separation, which was a success. 

Dark Side Of 3D

In a world where companies sell 3D-printed products, blueprints or both, and where blueprints can be obtained from many sources, modified, resold and remixed, how will you know if a product or blueprint is the real deal? In a 3D-printed world, what does “genuine” even mean?

If a bicyclist cracks his skull using a 3D-printed bicycle helmet, or a child chokes on a 3D-printed toy part, this question will become very real, and the courts aren’t ready.

There are also implications for law enforcement and enterprise security teams. Almost everyone has heard about Texas law student Cody Wilson, who made headlines in 2013 by 3D printing a plastic gun and posting the blueprints, which were downloaded 100,000 times before the U.S. government forced their removal from the server. Criminals in Sydney used 3D printers to make attachments for bank machines that skim card information from unsuspecting ATM users. A criminal who calls himself “Gripper” makes a 3D-printed skimmer by the same name, which he sells online.

The portability of 3D printers means illegal items can be made in constantly relocated stealth factories. In 2014, the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center announced its intention to buy a 3D printer to study whether terrorists could print bombs, and when. 

It will probably find that the answers are “yes” and “soon.”

Be Prepared

Your customers may find themselves up against not only their traditional competitors but tackling copied, generic or customized versions of their own (and their competitors’) products made by professional counterfeiters, 3D print shops, industrial customers or consumers themselves. 

The first step to helping customers gauge their risk and opportunity is to understand the elements that need to fall into place for a 3D-printing revolution in their markets. For industrial customers, the disruption of any existing product-based market requires:

  • The ability to build large things, hence the need for 3D printers with large build platforms

  • The ability to either make single items quickly or many items simultaneously — that is, speed or scale of production

On both the home and industrial sides, there are some additional requirements for market disruption:

  • Advanced materials (including materials that may not yet exist) that enable the efficient printing of complex structures

  • The ability to print complex, integrated structures, such as smartphones and blenders

  • The ability to print very small things, such as the integrated circuitry of computer chips

No matter what the vertical, one thing customers can’t do is be caught unawares. Channel partners can advise now on the compute power needed for CAD/CAM technologies and the possibilities of remote printing of, for example, spare parts at remote sites. With a little research you can get a knowledge base of available additive printing and materials technology. But perhaps the most valuable help is in visualizing the business possibilities.

John Hornick has been a counselor and litigator in the Washington, D.C. office of the Finnegan IP law firm for over 30 years. He is the author of the new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, and advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. He frequently writes about 3D printing, and has lectured about 3D printing all over the world. Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn or at his website, www.3DPrintingWillRockTheWorld.com.

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