The Potential Promise and Pitfalls of 3D Printing

The Potential Promise and Pitfalls of 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing can bring huge benefits – and challenges.

There are many innovations and societal changes such as robotics, autonomous vehicles, and the sharing economy that could shape the future of supply chains. But none of these developments is likely to transform the way manufacturing and supply chains are managed more than additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing.

While the concept of additive manufacturing is not new, the technology has become good enough that it is starting to be applied at scale.

To understand the technology, imagine a printer that instead of using ink, spews a building material – be it polymers, ceramics, cement or metal. The printer head moves according to a digital plan, laying out a thin layer of material on top of other layers, until a fully formed object immerges. And like color printers which take the right color ink based on digital instructions, 3D printers can build items that include more than a single material.

The MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL) will review the future evolution of 3D printing at our annual conference, Crossroads, April 4, 2017.

This technology, once developed further, likely signals, for many products, the end of mass production — the engine that underpinned the industrial revolution and that has enabled billions of people to afford a multitude of goods. Mass production means that identical items produced by the millions can be acquired by millions of people at a very low cost. 3D printing is a true disruptive technology in that it upends the economics of mass production. The technology is characterized by the following attributes:

  • No advantage to scale – once the digital blueprint is made, making a single item can cost just about as much as making many.
  • Complexity is free – the technology can manufacture complex items that are very difficult or even impossible to make with extractive technologies.
  • Speed up design – owing to the ability to manufacture “one-offs,” engineers can try many different designs and test them before an item is released to manufacturing.
  • Customization – unique items can be made to exact fits, be it custom clothes or custom replacement body parts.
  • Efficiency – (almost) zero waste.

Such attributes have far-reaching consequences. These include low inventory levels (forget end-of-life production runs), items such as prosthetics that are manufactured to fit perfectly, complex parts that cannot otherwise be manufactured (or are very expensive to build using traditional methods), and fast prototyping cycles.

While visiting MIT CTL, Philippe Cochet, Chief Productivity Officer at General Electric, talked about the benefits his company reaps by using additive manufacturing at scale. GE’s next-generation LEAP jet engine features 3D-printed fuel nozzles. The fuel nozzles are installed on engines that entered service in 2016. The metal-printed fuel nozzle is significantly lighter and many times stronger than the nozzle it replaced. What is significant from a supply chain management point of view is that it is a single component. Instead of procuring, receiving and assembling 19 parts from 19 different suppliers, the new nozzle is printed in a single step. By 2020, GE plans to print 40,000 fuel nozzles per year.

Realizing the potential of the technology, GE announced its intention to acquire Acram AB of Sweden, a metal 3D printing company. In the future, GE plans to be a supplier of 3D metal printers for industrial use. Most likely, the 3D metal printers that will be made by GE and others will be manufactured by 3D printers.

One of the interesting ramifications of the technology is that it obviates the debate about offshoring/reshoring. Manufacturing will take place close to the customer location owing to the economics of transportation. Raw materials can move in bulk over long distances at low cost per unit, while finished products will be manufactured and distributed locally.

Naturally, the technology will create new problems. To begin with, it will exacerbate the employment conundrum plaguing the industrialized world and soon the developing world. 3D printers are, in fact, robots, that complete the manufacturing process with little manual intervention. Fewer parts and fewer assemblies will mean fewer employment opportunities in manufacturing. Another challenge has to do with intellectual property. Designs of physical products are specified in digital plans that are simply plugged into a printer to make a new item. However, those digital plans are likely to be pirated – as happened with music, movies, and books. A related challenge is cyber security as hackers can alter the digital plans to make dangerous products. Finally, the technology makes it easier for rogue actors to manufacture illicit drugs and even sophisticated bombs.

Any new technology that has the potential to deliver numerous benefits can also have downsides. The Internet connects people, enables e-commerce, and allows digital controls; it is also used to steal intellectual property, invade people’s privacy, and perpetrates school bullying. The automobile connects people, allows commerce over longer distances and provides freedom of travel; yet it is also the cause of many deaths and injuries from road accidents, suburban sprawl, and environmental pollution.

As 3D technology is perfected – through the introduction of smaller, faster printers that require less energy and handle a wider range of materials – it will be used more and more. One hopes that the mistakes that plague the early days of most innovations (e.g. cybersecurity threats associated with the internet and unsafe automobiles), will not be repeated, and as the technology develops, the developers will not be blinded by the obvious economic promise and will pay attention to limiting the possible downsides.

This article was written by Yossi Sheffi, Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, and Director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. It first appeared as a Linkedin Influencer blog post. 

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