Republished from Forbes.com, on June 15, 2015, by Rick Smith, Contributor
I believe, along with a growing number of leaders around the world, that 3D printing will change the way things are produced more in this century than the industrial revolution did over the last 300 years.
Consider these two recent events:
A little over a year ago, a young Indonesian man named Arie Kurniawan participated in an open innovation challenge hosted by the global industrial company GE. The goal was to redesign the bracket that attaches a jet engine to an airplane wing. Arie’s design beat out over 1,000 other submissions, which was surprising to almost everyone. For one, Arie had absolutely no experience whatsoever with industrial manufacturing. None. Secondly, he had used a completely new design technique enabled by industrial 3D printing technology. But Aries’s bracket worked perfectly. It passed every one of the rigorous end use industrial tests for durability, stress and reliability.
And it weighed 83% less than the part it replaced.
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At about the same time, halfway around the world, GE’s radical new fuel injection system for a jet engine first emerged from a industrial 3D metal printer. The previous system had 21 separate parts, which needed to be produced, shipped to the same location, and then assembled. The new 3D printed system had only one. It was five times stronger, and contributed to an increase in fuel efficiency of an astonishing 15%! That a savings of over $1 million dollars per year on fuel. On every single airplane that uses the new system.
Reports of these two startling events quickly spread throughout GE and beyond. While certainly no one expected these single parts to have an immediate impact on the company’s overall financial performance, the implications of these two events were disarmingly clear.
- If 3D printing enabled individual parts to be redesigned with such massive improvements in efficiency, what possibilities existed for the companies’ other millions of parts?
- If someone with no training in industrial production could so impact a company stocked with top engineers, what were the implications for the current global workforce?
- If the new technology could reduce 21 component parts to one, what did this mean for the future of GE’s longstanding parts producers?
- If these parts could now be cost effectively produced in the United States, what did this mean for the global supply chain?
Even bigger, what if these new technologies could be used to redesign not only a few parts, but an entire airplane? Could we envision reducing the entire weight of a plane by 5%, 10%, even 20%? An outcome like this would not simply result in a financial uplift for companies like GE—it would change the economics of an entire industry!
In fact, it would change every industry.
What are the limits to the disruption that is about to occur, right in front of our eyes?
For those of you who believe that 3D printing is just a fringe technology overhyped by an enthusiastic maker community, or that its impact is limited to headline grabbing futuristic experiments like 3D printed organs, think again. Industrial 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, is poised to significantly and permanently disrupt global production. No longer just a tool for rapid prototyping, 3D printing is now being used for end-use part production and adoption is growing exponentially.
Industrial parts are now being created with geometries never before possible. 3D printed production runs as few as 1,000, or 100, or a single customized unit are now cost competitive with traditional manufacturing. Look out a mere two decades, and today’s global supply chain will be virtually unrecognizable. Nor will China’s role in global manufacturing. In fact, it is hard to imagine any industry that will not be significantly altered by this historic shift to 3D printing production.
This is not a prediction, but rather an observation from the very epicenter of this emerging global shift. My partners and I at CloudDDM recently launched the world’s first fully-automated industrial 3D printing factory with unprecedented scale and speed, co-located within UPS’ global distribution headquarters in Louisville, KY (CNN article). In addition, this year we launched the Global Coalition on Additive Manufacturing (GCAM), the only senior executive forum focused on this emerging disruption and its broad implications.
In the last several months, I have spoken to more than a dozen Fortune 500 CEOs and senior executives about this emerging technology. All of them told me they were keenly aware of 3D printing and its applications to industry. In fact, nearly all of these executives told me privately that their organizations were already well ahead of the curve, currently experimenting in several areas of production. I guess this is reminiscent of the large company performance review, where 99% of employees are convinced that they are above average. We can only be left to conclude that nearly all of these executives are not remotely aware of how far and fast the actual curve is moving. I recently shared some of these insights in at talk at the annual TED conference in Vancouver.
This is the first in a four-part series of articles written for Forbes on the far-reaching implications of industrial 3D printing, and how it is poised to change our world forever. In the next article, I will examine the new economics of manufacturing, and why this disruption caused by 3D printing is not likely, but inevitable. In article three, we will take a look at the many ways that companies are already using 3D printing manufacturing in practice today. And in the final piece, we will take a step into the future, getting a first glimpse of what it will be like to live in a 3D printed world.
In exploring this radical but inevitable future, I hope to prompt two questions that strike at the heart of every leader: How will the future unfold in front of us? And how can we position ourselves and our organizations to successfully navigate this historic shift to our greatest benefit?
Industrial 3D printing will forever change the world as we know it. Are you ready?
This article is part one in a four-part series written for Forbes. Also read parts two and three. Check back later for part four!