Three-dimensional printers may be years away from spitting out the finished goods consumers buy at their nearby big-box retailers, but industry experts believe that they're already transforming the way those products are designed.
From shoes to cars to tools, the impact of 3-D printing technology is clear: It's enabling manufacturers to design products that are closer to matching consumer desires, and they're doing so faster than ever. This 21st-century type of rapid prototyping has taken hold in a variety of product categories as companies look to cut costs, innovate and collaborate more effectively, and better respond to fast-changing tastes and needs.
"The ability to prototype easily and inexpensively has been the primary transformational attribute of 3-D printing," said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research. "Once you've got something physical that you can create, it opens the door to much greater and more effective innovation. There's no substitute for having that physical item in your hand."
Timberland improves design with 3-D printing technology
No one has to tell that to The Timberland Co., the $1.7 billion-a-year, Stratham, New Hampshire-based maker of outdoor footwear and apparel. Up until 2002, Timberland relied on professional model makers to turn 2-D computer-aided design drawings into 3-D prototypes made of wood or foam, a process that cost $1,200 for each product and took a week or longer.
That's when the company decided to invest in a 3-D printer from Z Corp., which was acquired last year by 3D Systems, and enter the world of rapid prototyping. Over the years, Timberland upgraded to a high-definition color 3-D printer, which has enabled design information to be communicated more effectively, and is also better for things like stress analysis or highlighting parts that have been revised, according to the company.
Today, that $1,200 prototype from yesteryear can be produced for $35 in-house, and in just 90 minutes. What's more, in the week it used to spend waiting for that single prototype, the company can now produce dozens of design iterations for a single shoe, enabling designers, engineers and marketers to better refine the final product to match customer demand.
In this way, use of 3-D printing has had a direct impact on Timberland's bottom line. Not only does the increased collaboration result in products that are more in tune with customer desires, translating to more sales, but salespeople enjoy the advantage of walking into sales calls with major retailers with finished prototypes in hand -- a capability few of its rivals can match.
GM turns to 3-D printing for prototypes
General Motors Corp., meanwhile, has seen 3-D printing evolve into a critical tool for its rapid prototyping lab. The automaker alternates between two 3-D printing technologies -- stereo lithography apparatus, in which a laser hardens a liquid filler, or selective laser sintering, in which the laser hardens a solid -- depending on the application.
In a video case study posted to YouTube by vendor 3D Systems, Dave Bolognino, director of GM's design fabrication operation, said 3-D printing technology has become a strategic investment for the company for a number of reasons, including its ability to generate high-quality prototypes of parts at a reduced cost, and to support a wide range of applications, from design to aerodynamic modeling to engineering. And then there's the speed. GM manufactures more than 20,000 parts, and 3-D printing has enabled the company to double its capacity for producing scale models of those parts over the past two years.
"The business case for the use of this technology is just phenomenal," said Bolognino. "It's a way to reduce product development time, save costs and give designers more options. I don't see any end in sight for the use of this technology, or General Motors' use of this technology."
3-D printing precautions
That said, 3-D printing does have a potential dark side, as noted by a team of Gartner analysts in a recent report on the technology. While they expect 3-D printing to revolutionize the consumer goods industry -- as well as the aerospace, health care, retail and manufacturing industries -- Gartner analysts caution that by 2016, at least $15 billion in intellectual property theft tied to 3-D printing will be reported by companies in consumer goods segments such as toys, high-tech equipment and automotive aftermarket parts.
"Intellectual property thieves using 3-D printers will have reduced product development and supply chain costs, enabling them to sell counterfeit products at a discount," wrote the Gartner analysts. "The unsuspecting customers (consumers, enterprises and government agencies, including the military) are at risk of poorly performing and possibly outright dangerous products."
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That looming threat isn't proving to be a deterrent, though, as growing numbers of consumer goods companies are finding that 3-D printing makes them more efficient and is a killer tool for reducing the sky-high costs of producing traditional prototypes.
"If I have to have a foundry cast a part, that's a big investment," said Hanselman of 451 Research. Plus, he added, from an IT perspective, "If I can turn a part around in a day or so, I don't have to spin up or spin down an environment to make it work."
Where Hanselman really sees huge possibilities for 3-D printing is in enabling local production of small items that are costly to ship and thus carry with them a significant carbon footprint. For example, Hanselman says he has a habit of breaking mobile phone belt holsters, and that there's no reason he won't one day be able to have one printed up at his nearby Kinko's.
"All I'd have to do is contact whoever owns the design, say here's my closest location, and off we go," he said.
Conversely, Hanselman says a product like staples -- which are cheap and easy to produce in bulk, yet have to be malleable and very strong -- would be a poor fit for 3-D printing.
Such determinations are becoming standard procedure for consumer goods makers as they continue to experiment with where 3-D printing makes the most sense. But there's little doubt that, whether the technology is used to produce finished goods or to let consumers print up their own products, the days of 3-D printing as primarily a rapid prototyping tool soon will give way to a whole new era of manufacturing.
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