3D printing could revolutionize how we make almost anything. What does that mean for business?

Alison Kay,

Global Vice Chair - Industry EY

More about the author

As Global Vice Chair of Industry, Alison’s role is to help businesses navigate disruption across industry sectors and help balance between growth, profit and trust.  She joined EY in 2007 with a strong background in advisory and utilities. 

The commercial possibilities for 3D printing span across industries and could mean a shift to a borderless world, says EY Global Vice Chair, Industry

3D printer in action

Technology often simmers along for a while before it ignites. That’s certainly been the case for 3D printing. Although it’s slowly evolved over the past 30 years, I believe 2017 is the year we will see it transform many parts of our lives. Consider what has become possible recently: 

  • 3D printing in space, with scientists on the International Space Station 3D printing maintenance tools 
  • Bio-printing of bones, cartilage and muscle; recently Chinese scientists announced they have successfully implanted 3D-printed blood vessels in monkeys, paving the way for 3D printable organs
  • Buses and buildings (needless to say, some assembly required)

Customization is a big driver in the mainstream. Think of all the things that don’t tend to fit precisely – shoes, headphones, clothes, etc. Now imagine them 3D printed, just for you, in a design you’ve chosen or even created.

But 3D is about far more than products – it has the potential to transform businesses, geographical challenges and entire supply chains. When it takes less time to design and manufacture products, when you don’t need warehouses for inventory, when spare parts can be printed on demand – we are going to see some very wide-sweeping changes indeed.

The future’s bright for 3D printing

I often talk to people who find it hard to get their heads around how 3D printing works. It is pretty spectacular. But it’s really a matter of input and output – instead of ink, in goes a variety of materials and out comes anything from metal parts to gem quality diamonds to food.

3D printing is the most advanced in aerospace and defense, where major manufacturers are using it to print parts faster, which are lighter (creating huge savings in fuel costs) and less wasteful. Maturity in this industry shows what is possible – and the newest generation of designers and engineers is far more familiar with 3D printing.

3D printing application across industries

Advances in materials technology

Materials technology advances will be a key enabler in 2017. The range of materials that can be used in 3D printers is vast and expanding daily, literally daily – including plastics, porcelain, ceramics, stainless steel, carbon, graphene, titanium and other metals. 3D printing has spurred on the creation of a new generation of ceramics.

There are also new techniques, such as honeycombing, which creates hollow inner chambers that are connected in a similar way to a beehive. Honeycombing made metallic microlattice, the lightest metallic structure ever made, possible: it’s 99% air. It’s already in use in the automotive and aerospace industries. Imagine the applications for this in the future.

Materials technology advances will be key enabler in 2017… we are only just beginning to understand the commercial possibilities.

The other trend that will boost 3D printing is the rise in personalization. One of my favorite stories this year is a British company that’s making prosthetic hands for children with superhero designs from Star Wars, Frozen and Iron Man. It’s a great combination of medical advances – sensors mean the hand has controllable fingers – and personalization that adds a much-needed element of fun.

There’s a hunger today for customized products – people want to both consume and interact. 3D printing offers this on a previously unimagined scale. Costs will continue to come down. I think we are only just beginning to understand the commercial possibilities.

Moving to a borderless world

In our current political environment, we’re seeing a rise in nationalism. We’re seeing a move away from globalization and trade. And while this is a sentiment that needs to be explored, technology is connecting the world more tightly. The digital age is global by nature.

There are many important questions that 3D printing raises: how and where do you tax the product, when people and companies are collaborating across national borders? If anyone can print anything anywhere, who is the creator of the object? Where is the intellectual property held? Is it where it was designed, where the component parts were added or where the product was ultimately printed? How will governments respond? What role should regulators play?

No doubt many industries will be impacted by this disruptive technology. There are many great opportunities and risks that can potentially trip up business leaders and policy makers alike. While it may not be possible to answer all the countless questions 3D printing will raise today, it is not too early to start thinking through how business and policy will shape them. It’s an exciting time.

Looking ahead to 2017

There is the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize the way we make almost anything. This year, I expect it will become faster and cheaper, with new materials that enhance commercial possibilities.

I think we’ll see exciting new applications next year in the automotive, aerospace and healthcare sectors. In healthcare, expect 3D printing to take center stage in 2017 on procedures like hip and jaw replacements, with the possibilities for 3D printed organs some years away.

 

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This article was originally published on LinkedIn as part of the LinkedIn Top Voices list, a collection of the must-read writers of the year.