Additive manufacturing - also known as 3-D printing - certainly represents a significant change in the way items can be produced. As opposed to traditional injection molding, casting, or other "subtractive" manufacturing processes, additive manufacturing takes a digital file and creates three-dimensional objects by printing successive layers of materials that are then modified slightly to create the desired end product. Many predict that this technology will eventually displace myriad traditional manufacturing processes.
The enthusiasm about additive manufacturing does have merit. In recent years, rapid technological advances have driven down the costs of equipment and materials, making 3-D printing increasingly accessible. The fast-growing market for additive manufacturing is projected to exceed $5bn by 2016, according to Credit Suisse. Other experimental processes are being developed that extrude objects out of liquid material.
Additive manufacturing is being adopted in many industries, particularly machinery, consumer products, motor vehicles, medical devices, and aerospace.
General Electric is one of the companies that are already additively manufacturing complex parts for aircraft engines in significant quantities. At the other end of the spectrum, consumers can have novelty items additively manufactured at The UPS Store locations around the country or buy their own 3-D printer for $1,000 or less.
But is additive manufacturing really ready to take off and be widely adopted for large-scale manufacturing? We believe that significant challenges must first be overcome. The chief constraints are economics, speed and material science. Certainly, additive manufacturing offers benefits for some applications, but companies should understand how, specifically, the technology can create value for their business before they invest.
We also believe that while additive manufacturing is economically viable for only a limited number of specific applications today, it is likely to play an important role in most manufacturing operations over time. Companies that begin experimenting with the technology now will be positioned to utilize it successfully in the future. However, they should view additive manufacturing as part of a suite of advanced manufacturing tools that can improve performance, operational efficiency, quality and the customer experience.
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