Why 3D Printing is the Future of Manufacturing
Looking at the media landscape, there are many predictions that foresee 3D printing as the future of manufacturing and many of these predictions are correct. That vision, however, does not match with our current reality. People have been hoping to gain the ability to manufacture products in their own homes quickly and easily for years, but progress in the consumer sector has stalled. In the b2b market, in contrast, 3D printing is thriving. This is because like many technologies before it, most of the innovations begin in large institutions and then as adoption increases, economies of scale come into play. A great example of this is the history of computing. The first machines were large, expensive machines and as time went on, more and more developments lead to cheaper methods of production and finally miniaturization caused production costs to decrease and finally, the computer became affordable to the average home.
In terms of current historical comparisons, we are at the organisational stage in the 3D printings technological development, where the largest adopters of 3D printing technology are institutions. Being a product that is catered to the manufacturing field, this is the logical focus of the market, where despite there being many hobbyists, the largest focus for 3D printing manufactures is catering machines to larger organisations.
So, why are so many companies adopting 3D printing?
There are a number of reasons and the biggest is if we look at the concept of economies of scale (where savings are generated by the more you produce). We see that 3D printing has lowered the minimum efficient scale of production, which is a game-changer for manufacturers.
The minimum efficient scale in manufacturing can be surmised as the lowest amount that an organisation needs to manufacture but still being able to benefit from economies of scale by being able to offer the product at a competitive price. A simple example would be, if a car company were to produce a small number of vehicles, the average cost of a car would be immensely high due to fixed costs, such as labour costs and rent being applied to the lower unit numbers. If the car manufacturer produces instead a large number of vehicles, then the cost per unit would be lower.
To better understand this, we also need to then look at the relationship between unit average costs and marginal costs. Marginal costs put simply is the cost associated with producing one extra unit and the change it produces to total costs for that product line. Expanding on the car manufacturing industry example, a car company factory at full capacity would need another production line to produce one extra car if it had an increase in demand. This would mean that the new production line that would be required would be considered as a marginal cost. By adding the extra line, the cost of producing extra cars would decrease due to economies of scale. This is a key important figure for many manufacturers because it helps them determine the optimal production number for their business.
So, how does 3D printing relate to this?
3D printing is a technology that has a lower efficient scale due to a few properties. Firstly, 3D printing reduces labour costs because it can be highly automated, where a small team can run a line of printers easily without overseeing each element, affording them to work on other tasks. Secondly, 3D printing can produce highly complex geometric parts in a single process. What does this mean? Considering standard production methods, such as injection modelling or CNC machining, many of these technologies require multiple steps to produce items that have complex shapes and in many cases, these technologies cannot achieve the same complexity as 3D printing. Many parts would require multiple production runs to get the desired results which would increases costs. Additionally, to be able to create these objects, organisations need highly trained staff which also adds to their fixed costs. 3D printing can produce parts, allow for changes without requiring extra tools or equipment in comparison to other methods. The future possibilities are exponential and this is why the world is fixated on the technology.
3D printing goes completely against standard manufacturing processes, which makes it a great disruptor in the manufacturing space. Its process is simple, linear and costs are low. It can produce nearly any part using the same machine and as the technology develops, it will only become more versatile and adaptive.
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