Why 3D Printing is the Next Model T

From knee replacements to personalized Coke bottles, 3D printing is driving the customization movement.

In 2013, an Indonesian designer named Arie Kurniawan re-imagined an airplane part and won a GE aviation contest. He wasn’t a trained aerospace engineer, and he didn’t have experience with industrial manufacturing.

He simply understood what many of his rivals did not: the power of 3D printing.

His design beat out 1,000 entries to become the first jet engine bracket created with additive manufacturing. This was not an isolated incident.

A massive shift is taking place around the world. Three-dimensional printing is enabling meaningful productivity improvements in manufacturing and supply chains at startups and Fortune 500 companies alike.

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We live in a time when the next great industrial advancement is happening right before our eyes.

We live in a time when the next great industrial advancement is happening right before our eyes.

In the new book, The Great Disruption: Competing and Surviving in the Second Wave of the Industrial Revolution, best-selling author Rick Smith, and digital manufacturing guru Mitch Free, reveal how 3D printing will transform the world in the same way that Henry Ford’s Model T upended transportation and Gutenberg’s printing press started an information revolution.

[Also on Longitudes: 3D-Printed Food: Curious Cuisine or Fleeting Fad?] 

Excerpt from The Great Disruption:

Medical researchers and suppliers were among the first to explore the technology’s possibilities, and the early results of this innovation are astonishing.

3D technology allows surgeons and researchers to repair and replicate the human body in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. Again, the key is complexity and customization.

Take knee replacements, a procedure undergone by hundreds of thousands of people every year. Typically, the operation goes something like this:

The surgeon slices open your knee and pins back the skin around it. An assistant has a few different sizes of replacements for the diseased or damaged portion of the knee.

The surgeon holds the parts up to your knee and picks the best match. Then the surgeon puts the replacement in your knee and makes it fit as precisely as possible. You’re sewn up and sent to physical therapy.

This is an approach riddled with problems. No off-the-shelf replacement can fit your body perfectly.

The implant’s lack of geometrical precision is compounded by the sophisticated role knees play in the body.

Knees are your largest joint, are more complex than shoulders, and are weight-bearing. 

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3D printing offers a new answer to these problems.

Many replacements are such poor fits that they don’t support the body properly or they grind against other parts of the knee and leg. As a result, many patients experience post-surgical pain and more than a few have to go under the knife again, hoping for a better fit.

3D printing offers a new answer to these problems.

In this scenario, the surgeon scans your knee and then prints out an exact replica — not the closest fit, but a perfect copy of the part being replaced. These 3D printed replacements are inserted just like the pre-sized versions.

But the post-surgical experience is significantly better. Patients have shorter hospital recovery periods, less pain and far better initial movement than with the off-the-shelf replacements.

Over the past few decades, the importance of “on demand” mass customization has become clear.

In large part, this has been driven by the internet’s spread of flexible, innovative customization across several industries, including entertainment.

But the tsunami-like impact of mass customization is not limited just to web-enabled services. Huge corporations that initially seemed unlikely to be impacted by the wave are also trying to cash in.

[Also on Longitudes: Pet Rocks, Hula Hoops and 3D Printing?]

A big name taps into big innovation 

The world’s most valuable brand, Coca-Cola, is a prime example.

For more than a hundred years, Coke has been the innovator in developing and managing a mass-market brand. In 2014, the company offered personalized messages, including the consumer’s name, in the middle of its iconic label.

Utilizing new HP 3D printing technology that enables customization at an unprecedented scale, Coke created 800 million personalized labels.

These labels were printed with the most common 150 names in each of more than 32 European countries, in 15 languages and five different alphabets.

In Israel, Coke took this idea to an even higher level. Using an algorithm created by HP R&D, Coca‐Cola printed out two million colorful individual designs. Every single can was one of a kind.

This customization program was a breakthrough success, helping Coca-Cola achieve the largest jump in sales since it introduced the 20-ounce bottle over two decades ago.

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Industrial 3D printing is the Second Wave of production technology.

3D printed knee replacements and personalized Coke bottles don’t have an obvious connection.

But they are all versions of the same story. The story begins when a new technology is introduced in mass production.

As a result, millions of people got mass‐produced knee replacements and bottled Coca-Cola, both of which have their own benefits. But, eventually, the same thing happens to each mass product.

A second technology comes along that offers the same benefits while adding customization. Knees are still being replaced, but they are bio-fitted for our bodies.

Coke is still being consumed, but out of cans as unique as the individuals drinking them. The Second Wave of a technology offers mass customization.

These stories vary in length, but they always have the same ending: mass customization overtakes mass production.

Today, the exact same thing is happening in manufacturing.

Industrial 3D printing is the Second Wave of production technology.

It is just beginning to disrupt a $14 trillion global manufacturing industry that is based on mass production.

But this is merely the first chapter in an epic novel, a story we’ve seen play out time and time again.

3D printing is the catalyst for the inevitable Great Disruption of mass production. It’s not a prediction, it’s a pattern. goldbrown2


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Rick Smith is founder 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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Mitch Free is a serial entrepreneur, manufacturing industry maverick and global trade expert. He now serves as the founder, chairman and CEO of two digital manufacturing companies: Fast Radius and ZYCI CNC Machining.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.