I recently attended the RAPID 2012 show in Atlanta. For those that don’t know, RAPID is an annual trade show and technical exposition hosted by SME, and dedicated to the promotion & growth of Additive Manufacturing (AM)and its related technologies. RAPID 2012 marked the 9th year of the show’s existence.

AM isn’t necessarily new. Many of its parts have been ‘around’ for some time – stereolithography, 3D Printing, Laser Sintering, to name a few. But as a technology, it’s still in its early stages. And like most industrial technologies before it, we’re learning as we develop AM. Make no mistake – AM will influence legitimate applications, and will greatly alter how we design and build things.

The show floor and conferences at RAPID 2012 focused primarily on where AM is as a technology, how that technology is expanding, and sharing interesting AM examples from shop floors, from around the world.

But what struck me most about AM was its potential beyond the technical, beyond the tools, and beyond the processes. The technologists and professionals at RAPID were laser-focused (pun intended) on developing and proliferating AM as a technology, and they (and the show itself) hit a home run in that regard. And there are many in our industries that are much better at describing the details of AM’s technology than I.

But I saw things there that made me look beyond the technology, and I came away with a set of new perspectives on – and possibilities of – AM’s potential impact on business, supply chains & whole economies. And even our culture.

Here are 3 ways that I see that Additive Manufacturing may very well upend our lives and the ways we do business, and sooner than you might think:

1. Additive Manufacturing Will Redefine What Consumers Are

I heard a recurring theme in Atlanta, that AM isn’t useful for mass production – yet. But imagining AM only as an influencing force in traditional high-volume manufacturing environments misses the point entirely. Simply placing a printer in the nodes of design & production chains is ignoring the immense impact of this technology on the consumer or buyer. Just as the Internet empowered the customer by arming them with more and better information, AM as a disruptive force will enable the consumer to circumvent and redefine how products are produced and delivered.

Let’s say you want a new coffee maker. Today, you go to the store or online – simple. But imagine what happens when 3D Printing machines begin to make their way into the homes, basements, and workshops of the future, and how that process of getting a coffee maker is turned on its ear.

In this new AM world, some or all 3D Printing materials will be either on hand at home already, or purchased through ‘traditional’ channels as a ‘kit’ for your coffee maker – maybe at Home Depot, or maybe online. Once the materials are in place, you’ll shop online for the ‘design’ of the coffee maker you want. You’ll download the files (from Amazon?), load them into the controls of your 3D Printer, hit ‘run,’ and come back in an hour to find your new coffee maker.

Who would go to all that trouble, you might ask? Well, play that tape all the way through to the end before you do:

  • Delivery time from ordering to receipt of your coffee maker can be greatly reduced
  • You are ensured of getting the exact coffee maker you want, without hoping a store already has it stocked

And what about the impact of customization, and its impact on the customer? Imagine selecting colors and other features like size on the spot, and making it to your tastes.

Extrapolating this example isn’t difficult, when you consider that customization is already successful in many consumer business models, including Starbucks and Build-A-Bear. It’s not unreasonable to envision Additive Manufacturing as an enabler to introduce one-off customization to the masses in some form for clothing, appliances, housewares, and many other consumer products.

Fabbster is just one of the many companies looking to develop low-cost Additive Manufacturing technologies for low-end or home use.

2. Additive Manufacturing Will Restructure Whole Supply Chains

Just as the Internet has truncated the discovery & buying cycles within industries, so too will AM truncate the time to ‘market’ – by eliminating whole steps between actualization and receiving a product.

Let’s take our analogy in another direction – let’s say that instead of owning your own 3D Printer, you decide you want to go to the store to purchase your coffee maker. Instead of selecting from available stock, you select or CREATE the model (and colors and features) from a digital kiosk, submit your order, and in 15 minutes your customized coffee maker has been 3D Printed & assembled in the back, and you’re on your way.

Or, imagine you visit Amazon online instead to place the order as above, only when you submit it the information is transmitted immediately to an ‘Amazon Production Facility’ near your home, where it’s printed and assembled. You can either pick it up, or they’ll bring it to you. Like pizza delivery.

Consider the impact of these scenarios on the following, current structures of supply and value chains:

  • Transportation – greatly tightened footprints between design, production, & consumption mean fewer truckers and logistics professionals, & a completely overhauled warehousing model
  • Distribution – the roles of & need for distributors and resellers will be dramatically rewritten and reconsidered; AM could literally smoke some distribution channels quickly
  • Labor costs – the need to pursue cheap labor in emerging markets is greatly reduced for many consumer products and industries
  • Retail – stores would become not just transaction centers, but production hubs with much greater depth within the tail end of retail supply chains

These re-definitions will most certainly impact employment across many sectors and markets. They may take unexpected twists and turns, but AM will be an extraordinary driver toward this disinter-mediation.

ExOne is a relative veteran in the Additive Manufacturing capital equipment sector.

3. Additive Manufacturing Will Shift Manufacturing Technology

One common trait of disruptive technologies is that they drive what were once technical, specialized capabilities to lower expertise levels.

Consider printing – just 20 years ago, specialists were needed for all but the most simple, primitive of printing or layout tasks. Today, an inexpensive laptop and a $100.00 printer can produce amazing quality print work, as well as photographs and high-resolution copies. That’s not to say that this makes us ‘printers,’ but with a little time and a modicum of ability, we can create that which only recently required years of experience.

This condition certainly isn’t new to manufacturing (unless you ask an economist). Manufacturers have created and sought out efficiency and a better way to do things since we’ve walked upright. It’s in the manufacturer’s DNA. Computer Numerical Control is just one of the latest technologies that have allowed those without the ‘gift’ to machine with accuracy and quality.

AM is about automation, but its real impact may be in driving the value away from the physical creation of a part or product and more toward the design and innovation. That is, if you can think it (or program or model it), building it will become more a matter of pushing a button. (The one issue that will remain critical to the production cycles in an AM world will be quality of materials, and in their selection or innovation.)

In our traditional world of subtractive manufacturing (removing material from a larger workpiece to make a smaller part), the production process is a lot like a haircut. (OK, OK … you can stop laughing – but it’s the best analogy I could come up with for this one.) That is, once you take too much off, you can’t put it back. Additive Manufacturing by its nature contradicts that basis, and capabilities and technologies will absolutely evolve to take advantage of that.

Like all disruptive technologies, AM will absolutely shift expertise to other positions or levels within an enterprise. Or industry. But where AM differs from what we’ve seen to this point is that it could literally move production capabilities directly into the hands of the designer – or customer. Today, prototyping has garnered the most thought and discussion in this regard. But as AM technology advances, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the actual production of low-volume, high-tolerance parts and assemblies in the hands of designers, entrepreneurs, and sole proprietorships.

NextEngine provides high-quality 3D scanning of objects to anyone with a laptop – a critical component in the design-to-part stages of Additive Manufacturing..

But Wait, There’s More

There are other game-changing possibilities that spring from AM.

Its impact on the environment (or rather, lack thereof) is mind-boggling. And on the show floor at RAPID 2012, I was told of engineers at General Electric Aviation that are ‘all-in’ with AM, with the belief that they can develop processes that will result in jet aircraft engines that will weigh nearly half of their modern-day relatives.

And the potential for AM to enable more manufacturing closest to consumption is limitless.

In my view, it’s the impact of Additive Manufacturing on our overall economy and businesses that’s the cause for the most excitement.