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3D Printing And The New Economics Of Manufacturing

3D printing production is still in its infancy, but it is already inevitable.

Rick Smith | Fast Radius

3D printing production is just scratching the surface of the multi-trillion dollar global manufacturing industry. But its dominance is already pre-determined.

Rick Smith

Rick Smith

This is because modern manufacturing, despite numerous technological and process advances over the last century, is still a very inefficient global system.

Today’s world of mass production is based on one simple rule: the more things you make, the lower the cost of each of those things. We have literally pushed this equation to its extreme limits.

This approach was dramatically accelerated by Henry Ford, arguably the most impactful character in the industrial revolution. For starters, Ford proved out the model of mass production.

He wasn’t the first to create the assembly line, but he was the first of his time to perfect it. He built massive factories, and greatly standardized his product and processes. He once famously stated, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”

The quote may be familiar, but do you know why only black? It wasn’t due to Ford’s forward-thinking design sense, but rather because black was the only color that could dry fast enough to keep up with his assembly lines.

By 1915 he had reduced the time it took to build an automobile by 90%. By 1916, an astounding 55% of the automobiles on the road in America were Model Ts.

Production-Equation-1

Ford mastered mass production and created the world’s first mass consumer product. But there is another reason why Ford is such an important figure historically.  Henry Ford literally punctuated the industrial revolution.

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What if mass production is not the end of this story, but rather just a stop along the way to something completely different?

We have all been taught about the industrial revolution as if it were a binary switch. There was a before and an after. We all believe we live safely in the after. This IS the future.

But what if that’s wrong?  What if mass production is not the end of this story, but rather just a stop along the way to something completely different? What if a technology came along that could turn everything upside down all over again?

[Also on Longitudes: 3D Printing is About to Change the World Forever]

3D printing is a technology that allows you to create things differently, from the ground up, layer by layer until you have a fully formed 3 dimensional object.

Just like you now send a computer file of a document to a printer in your home or office, you can now send a computer file of an object to a 3D printer, and out comes that physical object.

Eventually, you will be able to print almost anything you can imagine.

Now here’s where things get interesting.

With 3D printing, costs are not tied to the number of units produced, so you are not penalized for producing in small quantities. In the chart below, you see that the line for 3D printing is flat. Would you like to produce only the items needed this month? No problem.

How about ten of the exact same object, but produced in ten different locations simultaneously around the world, closest to your customers? Done. Need to customize every single object for every single consumer? 3D printing allows for unlimited flexibility and customization at no additional cost per unit.

Production-

Now, since its introduction 20 years ago, the cost of 3D printing production has been quite high relative to conventional scale manufacturing, but costs have been dropping while quality has risen sharply.

The darker blue line represents approximately where we are today, just scratching the surface. But the blue triangle represents the future that leaders around the world are seeing. 3D printing production is still in its infancy, but it is already inevitable.

At the same cost and quality, companies will always choose the flexibility of 3D printing over mass production. At the same cost and quality, 3D printing irreversibly overtakes conventional manufacturing as the preferred method of production. And that, my friends, changes everything.

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Eventually, you will be able to print almost anything you can imagine.

The benefits of 3D printing production are not just limited to flexibility and customization, either. 3D printing not only allows you to customize the design (geometry) of each object, you can also customize the materials used in production.

In addition, unlike conventional manufacturing, where added complexity dramatically increases per unit costs – with 3D printing production it does not.

In fact, with 3D printing you are now actually able to create complex geometries that can be manufactured in no other way (examples include the new GE jet engine parts highlighted in the previous article).

[Also on Longitudes: The Future of Tech]

The point of highlighting the advantages of flexible production size is simple: based on this advantage alone, at the same cost and quality as conventional manufacturing, 3D printing has already won.

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3D printing production is still in its infancy, but it is already inevitable.

When will this historic transition begin? It already has – look no farther than Henry Ford’s namesake, the Ford Motor Company, which recently celebrated the production of their 500,000th 3D-printed industrial part.

In the next article in this series, I will describe in some detail the many applications of 3D printing production that are already in use today and delivering results to the bottom line. The limits of where this technology may take us will be examined in the fourth.

3D printing production is still in its infancy, but it is already inevitable. The industrial revolution is NOT the end of the story. But do not think that you can simply sit on the sidelines and watch. The most disruptive innovations do not ask for your permission. But they do demand your participation. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on Forbes and was republished with the permission of the author. This article is part two in a four-part series. Disclosure: The UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund (SEF) has invested in Fast Radius LLC.

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Rick Smith is co-founder and CEO of Fast Radius, a global leader in 3D printing and on-demand parts manufacturing. He is also the founder of the Global Coalition on Additive Manufacturing (GCAM).

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