#485. 2014 Trends That Excite Agracel – Trend 5: 3D Printing Brings Production Closer to Consumption

Posted on | The Agurban

As we continue to look at trends that excite us about the future for Agracel, this week’s trend could really change the industrial landscape in the USA and worldwide.

 Trend 5:  3D Printing Brings Production Closer to Consumption

In October 1913 Henry Ford revolutionized modern manufacturing when he began building Model T’s on a continuously moving assembly line. He quickly cut the time to build a car down to less than 6 hours from start-to-finish from what was a multi-day process.

3D printing has the potential to do the same thing, but in a 180 degree different manner. Instead of starting with a single block and cutting it down, 3D printing starts from scratch and adds layer upon layer of material using computer generated designs. It is an additive process that prints only the necessary layers using a minimum of material until the final product is complete. There is no wasted time, materials, money, or effort.

From the outside, 3D Printers don’t look very impressive. You’d think that they were old style American refrigerators. But, the technology in them is actually more like props from a science fiction movie, and has industrial firms increasingly excited about the possibilities. At the press of button, complex shapes are built up in layers from particles of plastics or metal. The result is a cheaper and faster way to produce complex products, some of which would be almost impossible to make with traditional manufacturing processes.

Dean Bingham and I first saw one of these machines in the early 2000s at Hydro-Gear, one of our client firms which was using one of the early models for the production of prototype products. What was very futurist at the time is today becoming much more commonplace.

Several of the world’s largest manufacturers, like GE, EADS, Siemens, and others, are now leading the way in moving this technology from the design room to the factory floor. Siemens started printing spare parts for its gas turbines late in 2013, allowing it to speed up repairs and cut costs. It estimates that it will cut the time to repair damaged turbine burners from 44 weeks to just four! Nicolas Vormeyer, chief technology officer at Siemens explained the advantages of 3D printing as, “You can make one part in, say, 10 hours. If you have an individual part it’s economical but if you have 10,000 parts to make, milling or casting is probably better.”

Some of the early adaptors of 3D printing are going to be industries that are making a limited number of high quality parts. The airplane industry, where a single airplane can have more than 1 million parts, is likely to be such an industry. However, the auto industry, with 10,000 parts/car, is likely to remain more of a traditional manufacturer that will not adapt extensive 3D printing for some time, if ever.

This burgeoning technology, considered the next spark for the industrial revolution, is probably going to develop far quicker than most envision. The technology will allow the printing of parts virtually anywhere with the first ever flexible, economical means of low-volume, customized manufacturing. And, while it won’t replace traditional manufacturing with molding, casting, stamping, milling, and other time-tested techniques, 3D printing will compliment this mass production by making it easier for firms to design and begin initial production in-house, often cutting out the need to outsource production to overseas suppliers.

This new technology will also spur a new generation of American entrepreneurs. It drastically lowers the risks and entrance barriers for those who might otherwise not have the funds or skills to push new ideas to market.

It is an exciting new development that we relish seeing how it changes the industrial landscape in the USA and worldwide over the next decade. Stay tuned!

Next week, we will begin our two-part look at Trend 5: Growing Economic Impact of Low American Energy Prices. We continue to believe that this trend will be a driving force in the American manufacturing renaissance.