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3D Printing - The Next Big Thing to Create 'Factory of the Future'?

By Mark Thut, Principal, PwC US Industrial Products

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Mark Thut, Principal, PwC US Industrial Products

Advances in technology are allowing the manufacturing industry to move toward the “Factory of the Future.” And one disruptive technology that’s really starting to impact the U.S. manufacturing sector is 3D printing.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is showing signs of triggering transformations in the industry, from product design and production to restructured supply chains. According to a survey PwC conducted in conjunction with the Manufacturing Institute, over two-thirds (67 percent) of manufacturers surveyed are currently implementing 3D printing, either by experimenting with the technology or by using it for prototypes or production of final products. As the technology evolves and gains additional mainstream attention, companies need to understand the disruptions and opportunities that it could create in order to potentially expand their business and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

“The concept of 3D-enabled ‘on-demand’ manufacturing holds the potential to transform business models and the complex, costly supply chains and distribution networks upon which they were built”

While the technology for 3D printing has been around for many decades, it was previously not capable enough or cost-effective for most end-product or high-volume commercial manufacturing. In fact, PwC’s survey found that half of manufacturers said it was likely or very likely that 3D printing will be used mostly for low-volume, highly specialized products over the next three to five years. However, as global investments in 3D printing are expectedto skyrocket to $6 billion by 2017 from $2.2 billion in 2012, and the technological capabilities and applications continue to advance, 3D printing is now being hailed by some as a revolution in how more products will be developed, produced and even sold.

The 3D printing process can accelerate new product development cycles, which ultimately could translate into getting new products to market more quickly and frequently. This one technology now provides manufacturers the ability to shift from an idea to sellable product all in one step and enables manufacturers to print products anywhere they like – bringing them much closer to their customers. Therefore, the adoption of 3D printing raises the question of whether the supply chain will be shortened to almost one link – eliminating those connecting development, prototyping, production, delivery and warehousing of parts. PwC’s survey showed that 30 percent of manufacturers believe that the greatest disruption to emerge from widespread adoption will be “restructured supply chains.”

As more companies adopt 3D printing technology, and begin manufacturing closer to the end customer, supply chains are becoming more localized. For some industries and products, the concept of 3D-enabled ‘on-demand’ manufacturing holds the potential to transform business models and the complex, costly supply chains and distribution networks upon which they were built.

3D Printing – A Disruptive Force in IT too

Rapidly transforming 3D printing technology presents a unique opportunity to fundamentally redefine the business application landscape as well by integrating all major business functions into a single business process. 3D printing represents a whole new design, supply-chain and manufacturing technology all rolled into one, which means 3D printing IT will be a single design, sourcing and production platform all rolled into one system too. 

In order to take full advantage of 3D printing’s potential, manufacturers should institute an enterprise software foundation, built for flexibility and integration with design and engineering software, such as product lifecycle management (PLM).  Over the years, manufacturers have relied heavily on enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to manage production, inventory and logistics, among other processes. While ERP systems have played a critical role in helping manufacturers manage costs, streamline processes, and better meet consumer demand, many of these systems are now outdated and inflexible in-house systems – directly at odds with the need for greater speed and agility required by 3D printing.

The simplification of the business application landscape would mean no more fights between different ERPapplications and instances.  No more fights between competing PLM and ERP vendor solutions.  No more incredibly expensive and inflexible interfaces between everyone’s various tools of choice.  A 3D printer-enabled manufacturer will only need one business platform -- the 3D printer manufacturer’s business platform.

Ultimately, for 3D printing to transition from prototyping to legitimate manufacturing technology, it will need to interface with a company’s traditional product and manufacturing data management systems. While 3D printing is unique in that it can go directly from engineering/design to manufacturing/production, its integration with an enterprises’ supply chain, ERP, PLM and customer support systems will unlock a greater proportion of its overall value.

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