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3D printing represents a real-world example of how technology can help companies to build relationships at scale, by letting them treat their customers as individuals through more direct, customized interactions and tailored services. But this development also raises questions about whether 3D printers could eventually become as ubiquitous as paper printers, potentially changing the manufacturing sector.
Like many other early-phase technologies, some of the predictions for 3D printing appear far-fetched. For the present and immediate future, at least, 3D printers look likely to remain a powerful force in the hands of dedicated hobbyists, but potentially frustrating for non-expert users.
In this new Point of View, Accenture looks at the background of 3D printing and analyses its potential to fundamentally change how the manufacturing sector will operate in the future.
3D printing is not a new concept. The platform for it began with a 30-year-old technology called rapid prototyping. In this process, the goal was to build a draft of a particular part before investing in creating an expensive mold for a production line. Rapid prototyping let manufacturers develop a physical estimate of what a part or a complete product could look like, and how it might behave.
Although there were cost-savings benefits to rapid prototyping, there were also two major limitations:
The material science supporting rapid prototyping restricted prototypes to one or two different materials, and the resulting object was often a very rough draft that required manual sanding, painting and finishing.
In addition to physical material limitations, the equipment required to produce a rapid prototype was approximately the size of a car and fairly expensive. The barriers to owning such a machine were usually too large for rapid prototyping to become attractive to low-budget innovators or small or midsize companies.
In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, some companies bit the bullet and invested in equipment to offer rapid prototyping services. Although this was sufficient for some organizations, introducing a third party increased production time and muted the benefits of rapid prototyping.
Fast-forward to 2013. Hardware and software advancements have modernized rapid prototyping, allowing 3D printing companies to enter the market. Today’s 3D printers provide more accuracy and precision than rapid prototyping because the design of the object is created separately in 3D software. High-end 3D printers now allow multiple materials to be fused together in one print.
While the platform for 3D printing is more than 30 years old, today is the first time that 3D printers have become inexpensive enough to be used by enthusiasts and small businesses to create physical objects. Simultaneously, two support networks—online 3D printing services and open-source 3D communities—have emerged to make it possible to easily and affordably create items in a variety of materials, ranging from low-quality plastics to metals and ceramics.
The real opportunity of 3D printing is that it is giving companies the ability to produce a wide range of objects on demand, with little or no inventory costs. Three scenarios illustrate the opportunity: mass customization, on-demand production and the very long tail.
Mass customization. Imagine a world where, for a small premium, customers could set these parameters to whatever they need or want.
On-demand production. Many objects exist that are standard but obsolete, or that are in extremely low demand but necessary to maintain a product. Due to this need, some specialty suppliers maintain an inventory of small parts to support maintenance or other demands.
Imagine instead that the parts catalog for an object is entirely virtual, made up of sets of 3D files that can be printed on demand. Because the inventory is virtual, it would cost very little to offer customers an ever-expanding catalog of older parts.
This is a win-win situation, as customers would have access to a much wider assortment of products and a means to fix broken objects, while suppliers would save on both production and storage costs.
The very long tail. The term “long tail” was coined to represent the large set of products that consumers buy at very low volumes. With the rapid advancement of 3D printing, we are entering an era in which it is possible and economical to produce products at a low volume and with mass customization. In other words, 3D printing can make the long tail longer and reduce distribution costs in the process.
In doing so, 3D printers have the capacity to change the definition of obsolescence, as well as the level of control that customers have over their products.
Any company with a supply chain or a storefront should keep close tabs on this burgeoning technology. Why? Because there are significant business opportunities if companies consider how 3D printing could facilitate mass customization, unlock new revenue streams through on-demand production and extend support for the long tail for products or parts that consumers buy in low volumes.
The true opportunity of 3D printing is the ability for companies to produce a wide range of objects on demand, with little or no inventory costs. It is therefore clear that 3D printing could have broad business implications and drive substantial cost savings in areas such as consumer research, product development, testing (product, production, consumer, quality assurance) and packaging and shipping logistics.
In short, 3D printing looks like an exciting business prospect for many industries, including automotive, electronics, industrial products and consumer goods manufacturers, as well as retailers and other organizations that depend on a supply chain.
April 16, 2013
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