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The Disruptive Potential of 3D Printing

Where does 3D printing fit in today’s brave new world of digital business?


Respected business guru Jeremy Rifkin claims that digital technology is one anchor of a “third industrial revolution.” That may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but digital technology clearly has become a momentous disruptor of traditional business paradigms, as well as an enabler of new business approaches and customer relationships. This is why, according to Cisco Systems Inc., there is an estimated $14.4 trillion in “digital disruption dollars” up for grabs between now and 2022.

Accenture believes that digital supply networks are the backbone of this new ecosystem: worldwide conduits that streamline and accelerate the exchange of products, materials, components and (perhaps most important) information. We also believe 3D printing is an ideal illustration of the digital supply network’s vast potential.

Accenture believes that 3D printing is an ideal illustration of the digital supply network’s vast potential.


The market for 3D printers, which build physical representations of digital models using additive manufacturing techniques or manipulating lasers to bind materials, used to be quite small because the printers were primarily used for rudimentary prototyping. However, new applications are continually appearing, and prices are dropping commensurate with demand.

In the near future, investments aimed toward adding speed, precision and capacity will allow 3D printers to create more complex products in larger volumes. The Department of Energy and machine tool manufacturer Cincinnati Inc. recently announced a partnership to create a 3D printer 200 to 500 times faster and 10 times larger than most current printers.

The Department of Energy and Cincinnati Inc. created a 3D printer 200 to 500 times faster and 10 times larger than most current printers.


There are three particular areas in which 3D printing is becoming synonymous with viable opportunities to re-grade the manufacturing playing field, as it helps drive the digital-physical blur.

  • Rapid prototyping and mass customization—3D printing will change the economies of small-run manufacturing because it requires no special molds, jigs or other tools.

  • New ecosystems for accommodating the digital nature of 3D printing—Taking full advantage of these innovations can require a largely new “manufacturing digital ecosystem” that supports new ways to design and make products.

  • New angles to driving operational excellence—Operating a facility stocked with digital printers could give companies economical, fingertip access to a huge variety of parts that are created only as needed.


Today, 3D printing occupies the same kind of theoretical space as computers, smartphones and the Internet did in the latter half of the 20th century: A base set of early applications and proof cases, and a seemingly unlimited list of future opportunities, many of which likely have not yet even been contemplated.

Of course, the inspiration is easy compared to the perspiration: What ideas are actually viable? What considerations are essential? What initiatives most deserve scrutiny? What level of strategic and operational reengineering is required? This is where in-depth expertise, diligent study and hard work come in. The process includes asking whether the technology you’re contemplating helps the organization become more connected, intelligent, scalable and/or rapid.