The Economy of 3-D Printing

My recent article on Brexit was well received and I’d like to lay out another topic that is in the news often and explain some of the basics for people who may know a little bit but want to know a lot more. This topic is 3D Printing.

We all read about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April. I recently read an article about a Kansas City firm that may 3-D print the Notre Dame spire and thought my readers may find this interesting.

What exactly is 3D Printing?

3-D printing is a technology that will likely have a revolutionary impact on the international trade market when implemented worldwide.

It’s an additive process of production, meaning it combines raw materials together in layers rather than the current subtractive manufacturing methods that grind and mold materials into the desired molds.

The significant advantage of the additive method is that there is no waste produced, allowing for increased productivity and lower prices for consumers.

History of Additive Production

The first person to create a 3D printing prototype was Japanese patent attorney Hideo Kodama in 1980. Using a photo-polymeric process (combining light and heat to mold molecules), Kodama was the first person to produce 3 dimensional models by layering materials together.

Fast forward to the early 1990’s where Charles Hull invented the first Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA), which used lasers to fabricate layers in a fraction of the time Kodama could. In 1992, Hull’s company 3D Systems became one of the first firms to commercially print in 3D.

By 1999, scientists at Wake Forest were able to print 3D human bladder scaffolds that could be coated with cells and implanted into patients.

Over time, 3D printing has made tremendous strides in accuracy and availability to the point where today virtually anything that can be designed, can be printed.

3D Printing and the Market

As the accessibility of 3D printing has increased, the cost has decreased sizably over time. Experts across the globe agree that the economy will likely continue to become decentralized, as the market adapts to the convenience of 3D printing.

As more 3D printers are created at a lower cost to businesses, manufacturers are able to save on production, raw material, and transportation costs. All three of these savings individually could make sizable impacts the global economy. Let’s look at each of these impacts below:

1) More Efficient Production

Even before the emergence of additive production, manufacturers around the world were always looking to decrease production costs without hurting product quality. With 3D printing, many producers will actually be able to improve quality at a lower cost.

According to Dr. Theiß Petersen of Bertelsmann Stiftung, parts which were made under additive methods for shock absorbers in the Formula 1 racing car are at least twice as durable and weigh less than the parts made traditionally.

Source: Shock Absorbers

Another efficiency in production has to do with the absence of waste in the manufacturing process. Because the additive method layers materials together to create models, there is little or no extraneous material that would be created from grinding or molding substances.

2) A Circular Economy of Materials

The current economy of raw materials can be described as linear, meaning most resources are extracted from mines or forests and modified to create parts and products. After consumers are finished with the products, many of the products are thrown into the garbage and not used again.

Printing objects locally allows businesses to make products out of one single material, rather than a combination of resources. When consumers are finished with them, the used product can be embedded as the input for the next round of new products made of the same material.

From an environmental standpoint, this is obviously a huge plus as well. Using recycled material as the basis of new products is a more efficient way to produce goods while eliminating waste from the process.

3) Greater Supply and Localized Assembly

Transitioning from a single concentrated manufacturing plant to multiple local 3D production facilities can be costly in the short term, but the change can bring better sustainability for businesses in the long run.

Instead of having to gather materials and supplies, manufacturing of many products is heading toward a world of simply sending digital designs into the cloud, and printing products at the desired location on the same day.

Of course, the transition will take time to reach manufacturers in all industries, but the explosion of growth in technology since the early 2000’s points to the possibility of 3D printing becoming a standard in manufacturing over the course of decades (Petersen).

Overall International Impact

It is difficult to place a definitive timeline that accurately predicts the impact this growing technology may have on the manufacturing industry.

But we can say that when 3D printers are made available across the globe, business will be much more decentralized than society has seen in a very long time.

As long as people have access to the internet, a power source, and a 3D printer, they will be able to print the exact same products in both 1st and 3rd world countries.

With access to digital designs being at an all-time high, there is great potential for a new type of trade market. In the past, blueprints for products could be exchanged, but manufacturers faced obstacles in making sure the correct materials and machinery were available.

3D printing eliminates these barriers for manufactures. A digital design trade market could emerge and enable manufacturers to produce better quality products at a lower cost to consumers in less time than ever before.

Additional Resources:

How 3D Printing Technology Could Change World Trade

History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Are (That Is, If You’re Under 30)

3D Printing as the Manufacturing Infrastructure for the Circular Economy