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Much of the hype around 3-D printing has focused on the consumer, with printer vendors hawking the latest desktop models to eager hobbyists. The impact of the 3-D printing explosion, however, expands well beyond the comforts of home. Manufacturers and retailers are beginning to embrace a 3-D-printed future and perhaps changing the production landscape for good.
Makerspaces are becoming popular meeting spots for creative types to access the tools to make their design dreams a reality. But manufacturers are also embracing makerspaces as cheap, easy ways to turn out 3-D prototypes without having to buy their own printers, according to Ian Cook, a member and teacher at the MakeIt Labs open-access workshop in Nashua, New Hampshire. MakeIt Labs is a grassroots effort that started in the garages of local hobbyists and has since expanded into a 6,000-square-foot community space. The workshop provides a wide array of equipment to members, including metalworking, welding, machining and, of course, 3-D printing.
"[Three-dimensional printing] is definitely having an effect on manufacturers who are willing to be open-minded," said Cook, a technician at Durridge Company, a Billerica, Massachusetts-based maker of radon detection equipment. When the company needed a new prototype, he used the resources at MakeIt Labs to design and print it. Since then, Cook has been printing machine parts, brackets and tools for the company.
Cook, however, is doubtful 3-D printing will lead to consumers skirting manufacturers altogether and making their own goods in significant numbers. "Consumers generally aren't going to sit down, design and solve the problem," he said. "Making their own custom solutions -- and custom products -- is going to be very difficult to them. Ultimately, it will still be easier to just get what they need from a store."
Another innovator in the growth of makerspaces is TechShop, a San Jose, California-based chain that offers its members training on and access to a variety of equipment, including 3-D printers. With the spread of this type of community space, the maker and 3-D printing movements have joined forces, according to Jesse Harrington Au, maker advocate at 3-D design software vendor Autodesk, a TechShop corporate partner.
"People are enamored with the technology," he said. "At the core of all the 3-D printer vendors out there is a maker heart. Most of the companies that you see weren't based on engineers wanting to start a company; they were based on people who loved the maker movement and wanted to create that technology on their own."
Au believes that the impacts of 3-D printing on manufacturing and retail can already be seen. He points to Boeing, which is using 3-D printers to make custom plane parts in the exact quantities needed. Instead of waiting weeks for a part to be made and shipped to the assembly plant, the part can be created on-site in a matter of hours. On the consumer side, manufacturers have used 3-D printing to offer unique, customizable small-batch products, such as jewelry and footwear, he said.
"Previously, manufacturers had to make hundreds of thousands of parts to keep costs down," Au said. "Now we're able to democratize it so anybody can get a custom printout from a local vendor. You don't have to have a storeroom or showroom full of stuff. [Three-dimensional] printing really lends itself to that small-scale manufacturing."
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While the technology exists today to run a manufacturing operation entirely on 3-D printing, most organizations are not quite prepared for that level of change, according to said Michael Shanler, research director at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc.
"We now have the capability to create things that were once impossible to manufacture, but most companies just aren't ready to completely transform their manufacturing process," Shanler said. "From an enterprise perspective, the change requirements [for adopting 3-D printing] are not trivial."
Shanler and Au agree that the 3-D printing revolution will impact manufacturing the hardest at the local plant level. Because they rely less on large-scale manufacturing equipment, companies have the opportunity to decentralize production and make more products in small facilities. A shift toward this sort of localized production also has the potential to reduce shipping costs dramatically, Shanler pointed out.
Retailers are also taking notice of 3-D printing's revenue potential, with big-box retailers such as Staples installing printers for customers to use, Shanler said. It remains to be seen if this rent-a-printer approach will take off with hobbyists, many of whom are buying their own home printers.
Three-dimensional printing has the potential to alter not just the way people think about manufacturing, but also the way manufacturers think about suppliers, Au said. Suppliers will have to be more flexible to respond quickly to custom orders. Finding suppliers close to home will also become a priority for the smaller, localized manufacturers that 3-D printing encourages. And with more 3-D-printing-supported startups popping up every day, manufacturers and suppliers face a crowded field, he said.
"With all the crowdfunded companies and Kickstarters out there now, whole supply chain networks are evolving. [Three-dimensional] printing levels the playing field for these little guys," Shanler said. "It's going to enable anybody with an idea to manufacturer a product. It just takes a little bit of money and some gumption."