The realm of manufacturing is making transformations to compete in a market with an increasingly lower barrier of entry. While 3D printing has been around for decades, it has reached a tipping point. Manufacturers are able to take advantage of this technology to increase defectiveness in their production processes. Companies no longer use 3D printing to produce only prototypes, but they are also able to print parts and products.

According to a Forbes 2014 survey, 11% of manufacturing companies had already switched to volume production of 3D printed parts or products. More companies are expected to follow this trend because 3D printing allows companies to maximize efficiency and minimize costs.

Function of 3D Printing in Production Design
One function of 3D printing is to create physical replicas of new parts or product designs. Companies are able to speed up the prototype and design process cycles, allowing them to test different designs and create the optimal version in a time sensitive environment.

For example, the Fortune 500 Ford Motor Company has benefited from these innovations and had this to say,” For most of the company’s existence, engineers had to create a brand new mold if they wanted to test a prototype engine. The process would typically take six months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, Ford is 3D-printing these molds in four days at a cost of $4,000. Taking advantage of this enormous reduction in time and cost, Ford recently decided to make not just a single engine prototype for a new car, but numerous versions to be tested simultaneously.”

3D Printing Impact on Manufacturing Costs
Typically, there are high startup costs to create molds and keep tooling with low incremental costs; however, this is only true if there is a high volume of production. The smaller sized operations lose under this formula, but they can use 3D printing as a cost effective option as there are no setup costs.

However, traditional manufacturing companies see a negative impact to their income statement due to inventory production costs, shrinkage, obsolescence, warehouse, insurance, tracking, and distribution. Manufacturers can circumvent these costs by creating a virtual inventory, which will allow for them to produce inventory when they need it.

3D Printing Increases Product Life
3D printing can increase the effectiveness of its product lives. Today, a 10-year-old refrigerator that works fine mechanically but is missing two shelves or a door seal would most likely be scrapped. After a decade of service, all the spare parts produced for it are depleted. The manufacturer will consider the product “dead” and will no longer service it.  But with 3D production, you now have “the long tail of parts.”  Manufacturers hold on to the digital design files and can print any part for as long as it is needed. Therefore, products do not have pre-determined or limited lives.

3D Printing in the Future
In today’s changing market, consumers demand a personalized product. 3D printing helps manufacturers meet this demand with its mass customization. This is a becoming a popularized way to produce a high volume of inventory and still individualize each unit. Overall, 3D printing has optimized the process of creating the final product but with superior capacities and features, including being lighter, smaller, and more user-friendly. Traditional manufacturing will need to adopt 3D in order to evolve consistently with the changing market.