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By Ben Vickery, NIST MEP

Today, I’m posting about a technology that may well revolutionize manufacturing. I suspect that this is a truly “game changing” technology that has the capacity to transform manufacturing and act as a disruptive innovation. According to Forbes, this emerging industry is expected to reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2012 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

What am I talking about? I’m referring to Additive Manufacturing, also popularly known as 3D printing.

Before I get into Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing, what do I mean by a “disruptive innovation?” Innovation expert and author of The Innovators Dilemma Clayton Christensen defines disruptive innovation as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.” Additive manufacturing has its roots in stereo lithography and was has been one of the more advanced techniques used in the process of rapid prototyping. However, Additive Manufacturing has made the leap from rapid prototyping to rapid manufacturing, is now being used to manufacture finished products, and may help usher in the age of mass customization.

So, what is Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing anyway, and where did it come from? According to ASTM International, Additive Manufacturing is the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining.” Many of you in the MEP community are aware of, or have perhaps used, some forms of this technology during prototyping. There are a number of particular processes that use various materials to achieve Additive Manufacturing, and a sampling of Additive Manufacturing techniques and materials include:

  • Stereolithography, utilizing photopolymers
  • Selective laser sintering, utilizing thermoplastics and metals powders
  • Direct metal laser sintering, utilizing virtually any alloy metal
  • Fused deposition modeling, utilizing thermoplastics and eutectic metals
  • Electron beam melting, utilizing titanium alloys

What are current uses of this technology? There are a gamut of products that are now being produced and even more amazing things that this technology will soon be making. With apologies for my bad pun, I’ll cite one particular example  that is rather jaw-dropping. Last June, a revolutionary jaw transplant took place in Europe. A custom-made lower jaw was created with a 3D printer and attached to an 83-year-old woman’s face in the Netherlands. The jaw was made from titanium powder that was heated and fused together by laser in a layer-by-layer process. This could be a game-changer in health care, as Additive Manufacturing allows the ability to custom manufacture patient-specific replacement parts for the human body. According to an engineer involved in the process, there were thousands of layers printed to make the jawbone (it took 33 layers per mm of height), yet the jaw took only a few hours to build. After giving the jawbone a bioceramic coating, the transplant took place in about four hours, roughly one-fifth the time for traditional reconstructive surgery. Afterwards, the patient was able to go home in four days. Imagine how this can transform human health…

This is just one example of Additive Manufacturing, and there are many others too numerous to list in a single blog. There are also numerous economic and societal implications embedded in the Additive Manufacturing equation that I will expand upon in subsequent blogging, but let me just briefly touch on one potential implication for U.S. manufacturing.

As with many disruptive innovations, the greatest impacts of Additive Manufacturing may extend beyond the technologies and products themselves into fundamental economic and societal impacts. Consider that much has been analyzed, written and discussed about the challenge that U.S. manufacturers have faced from nations using low-cost manufacturing  – often coming from low-wage employees, often with little manufacturing training or skill – to make commodity-based goods, components, and less complex final products.  A few months ago, I wrote a blog that asked the question “What would it take for Apple to make an iPad here?” Perhaps 3D printing may ultimately help influence the answer to that question in the coming years.

Now, allow me to ask a few ”what if” questions. What if low-cost labor was lessened in the equation of manufacturing competiveness? What if the lower-tech, less value-added components that go into a cutting-edge finished product could be made here instead of being made elsewhere by low-cost manufacturing and then shipped here?

While it may yet be a while before I have a 3D Printer at home that can spit out the latest and greatest finished consumer electronics product, the notion of a 3D printer that can quickly, cheaply, and precisely manufacture some of the components that  ultimately make up an iPad or its competing brethren may not be so far-fetched. If the future holds the promise of being able to create less complex components in the nearer-term, then we may well use Additive Manufacturing to produce quite complex components or even cutting-edge final products in the longer-term.

There is more to be written about some of the incredible examples of Additive Manufacturing, as well as the economic and societal changes that this disruptive innovation may bring. I aim to do so in subsequent blogging. However, I’ll close by quoting another recent blog post, in this case from Supply Chain Matters, which notes:

“Additive manufacturing changes the strategic factors that drive decisions related to global outsourcing and what geographic areas to source this production, since direct labor and landed cost criteria becomes easier to quantify.”

Consider the implications of that statement…

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