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Is 3D Printing Really Ready for Prime Time?

Claims that 3D printing (also known as digital printing) is poised to shake up the manufacturing industry in dramatic fashion have been on the rise. Is the excitement warranted?

A September 2013 report from investment advisor the Motley Fool even went so far as to assert that the new technology will “close down 112,000 Chinese factories ... and launch a 21st-century industrial revolution right here in the U.S.A.” As much as we would like to see manufacturing return to Western shores, we’re a bit less sanguine than the prognosticators. Indeed, before we send pink slips to millions of Chinese workers, we need to step back and analyze 3D printing through the lens of the experience curve, and how it both drives and responds to consumer adoption of new technologies. And before we predict widespread change to the manufacturing industry’s structure, we must reflect on how economies of scale and total landed cost drive investment decisions.

There’s no question that 3D printing offers a new manufacturing model. It eliminates the need for expensive, customized tooling. And as an additive manufacturing approach rather than a subtractive one, it uses less material. The cost of digital printers continues to decline; start-ups are now offering hobbyist versions for less than $250. But technology forecasting analysis will show that 3D printing isn’t poised to take the place of factory production anytime soon.

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Keywords: additive manufacturing, U.S. manufacturing, digital printing, supply chain, supply chain management

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