3D printing is at the heart of distributed manufacturing. The range of 3D-printable materials continues to expand beyond plastics to include metals, resins and ceramics. When compared with traditional molding, machining and casting processes, more complex geometries can be achieved. While additive techniques are widely used for prototyping, a 2019 survey reports that more manufacturers have begun to use 3D printing for full-scale production runs. The ability to print from electronic files has given rise to new manufacturing-as-a-service (MaaS) business models, allowing manufacturers to gain operational flexibility and reduce ownership costs by leveraging on-demand 3D-printing service bureaus.
3D printing will not supplant older tried and true fabrication techniques, but it will become an ever-more important tool sitting alongside traditional subtractive manufacturing capabilities. Greater product customization to reflect evolving consumer demand, lower inventory and logistics costs, production closer to need and shortened delivery times are just a few of the benefits that a more distributed production environment offers.
Questions for the C-suite
- How are you leveraging 3D printing in a more distributed model to improve your innovation, product development, customer relationships and speed to market?
- How could small entrepreneurial 3D printing companies compete against you using different business models and lighter asset bases?
- How are you protecting your digital intellectual property (IP) as 3D-printing capabilities increasingly become more democratized?
Production heading toward cleaner materials and far less waste
Customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders increasingly expect manufacturers to use processes that reduce environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, and prove safe for communities. And manufacturers around the world are investing in more sustainable production practices and products, to replace older techniques that are typically physics-based and reliant on high-temperature processing technologies. These more sustainable investments are estimated to be worth a combined US$ 2 billion in cost savings and revenue generation.
A cleaner materials revolution is part of the equation. Abundant resources, such as carbon, are being engineered at the nanoscale to create new materials, such as graphene, which can be substituted for scarce and costly metals. Super-light aircraft made with graphene could reduce fuel costs.
Borophene, a new material composed of a single layer of boron atoms that form various crystalline structures, has the potential to be used as the anode material for more powerful lithium-ion batteries, as well as work as a sensor to detect different molecules and atoms.
Ultrathin materials, some of which can change or evolve in response to forces, such as heat, light or electricity, could lengthen battery life, make solar cells more efficient and desalinate water. Self-healing materials could prolong the useful life of products, diverting them from the waste stream. With concrete production contributing to 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions, lab scientists are focused on manipulating nanoscale particles or leveraging limestone-producing bacteria in cement to make a more durable and less resource-intense product.
Watch this video to learn more about how nature may revolutionize what we make and how we make it.