By Jan Baum
3D Innovation Institute
3D printing and additive manufacturing (3DP/AM) have been included in the top ten lists of disruptive and transformative technologies for at least the last five years. These technologies are allowing us to innovate faster, shrink product development cycles and costs, optimize products prior to commercialization, and most importantly, make it possible for the collective ‘us’ to find new solutions to tomorrow’s problems. But we have to be engaged. The industry has a compound annual growth rate of 26.4% and has averaged a 34% annual growth rate over the last several years. 3DP/AM technologies are both transformative and revolutionary and will lead to seismic changes. This evolving technology has applications across industries and sectors.
Here’s where we are today and here’s what you need to know:
It Is No Longer Trains and Stations But Do Find a Platform
Our world today is a networked, global, digital superhighway where virtually everyone has access and everyone can become a node:
- Digital blueprints can be generated anywhere and printed or manufactured anywhere leading to more talent in the pool, distributed manufacturing, and crowdsourced solutions.
- Proof of concept, visualization, and rapid prototyping will always be mainstay applications of 3DP/AM technologies and we will see a steady uptick in the adoption of these technologies through these gateway applications.
Even more interesting are the increasing examples of scaled applications. Here are two: Ninety five percent of in-the-ear hearing aids are made with 3DP/AM. If you are in the hearing aid industry and are not using these technologies, you won’t be in business long. The poster child for impacting manufacturing is GE’s titanium fuel nozzle for the new LEAP engine. With 3DP/AM, the fuel nozzle is reduced from 18 parts to 1 part resulting in a part that is 5 times stronger and 25 times lighter. [Light weighting is a central benefit of 3DP/AM. In the aerospace industry parts have been light-weighted upwards of 80% on some parts.] Do the math: a significantly faster production time times the multiple benefits of a superior product divided by the cost to produce. Disrupt Yourself.
We are at the tip of the iceberg. The technology is accessible. The software is accessible. Funding is accessible. Human imagination is limitless. The technology is evolving all the time at every place on the spectrum. Bio-printing, for example, printing human cells and organs, is almost mind-boggling yet it is happening at flagship institutions like Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland as well as so-called hackerspaces that curious innovative types gin up, and entrepreneurs are creating desktop bio-printers out of entrepreneurship programs and in entrepreneurial work spaces. Distributed and disruptive innovation.
Every time a 3D printer is installed, high skill, middle skill, and low skill jobs are created. Show me a region that doesn’t need 21st century jobs. This is a worldwide trend and the U.S. is not owning it.
Required: A Different Way of Thinking
Do you believe? Too many 3DP/AM technologies seem like science fiction. We have manufactured our world for so long using traditional subtractive methodologies. And we are really good at it. You would have to be living under a rock--my fear--to not realize that our world is increasingly digital and our physical world is being digitized, even, and especially, our tried-and-true, bedrock, grounded-in-the-physical-world industries. As leaders, we must continually challenge ourselves to continually rewire our brains for the digital era in order to remain competitive. One tool--a 3D printer--can reduce the number of constituent parts a product requires from 18 to 1, eliminate that supply chain and labor, create a superior product, and that one tool can do this for an unlimited number of products. In the automotive industry, product development cycles have been shrunk from years to months-resulting in faster innovation. 3DP/AM requires a different mindset. Can you afford to not evolve?
3DP/AM has applications across industries and across sectors and is not the provenance of one discipline or a select group. Making and manufacturing defines us as human beings, so it is no surprise that there is worldwide engagement with these technologies to solve today’s problems. The technology is accessible: from large scale service bureaus with hundreds of 3D printers cranking out parts for industry to online platforms that project managers turn to while waiting for the C-suite green light. Educational institutions that are keeping up with technology have siloed labs. Educational institutions that are setting the pace have accessible networked labs where 30-50 desktop printers meet the demands of the student body regardless of where they are located. And those not in an educational institution as described can increasingly turn to their local library or online platforms.
Smart and Getting Smarter
There are a lot of great software products, materials, and technologies available today. We can print with over two hundred materials. And more of everything is being developed every day. Access is a key component in developing the rapid technology industry. Collaborative evolution and industry collisions present the best path forward: software that maximizes and pushes current technologies, new materials that push software and technologies, discipline-specific methodology applied across disciplines, etc. 3DP/AM is lights out manufacturing and with increasing connectivity, we are alerted if a machine fails.. saving us even more time.
This is happening everywhere. Localized nodes. With human capital as one of our most precious resources. Now ask yourself this: Is your company, industry, or region breeding competitive innovative people?
Jan Baum is the Executive Director of the 3D Innovation Institute, Principal at J. Baum + Associates LLC, and a full professor. A leader in the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry, she is currently leading the charge in building a 21st century 3DP/AM industry in the Mid-Atlantic region. Her focus is on facilitating a connected and collaborative rapid technology ecosystem across sectors. She has instituted industry best practices for Maryland, and has established multiple innovation + prototyping labs educating future workforce leaders and helping businesses compete using 3DP/AM technologies.