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Disruptive technology is brutal on mature industries. Digital publishing upended the centuries-old industry of traditional printing. Virtually anyone could become a publisher as the costs of customization and distribution dropped radically, with information often essentially given away. Twenty years into this phenomenon, traditional publishers still struggle to find their bearings.
Manufacturing faces a similar challenge from 3-D printing. This technology will alter production methods and largely flatten barriers to entry, forcing companies to adapt their business models in order to survive.
The technology of 3-D printing is literally an inverse process from what companies use today. Manufacturing typically involves a subtractive process, where tools cut away wood, stone, metal, or other material to leave the desired shape. However, 3-D printing is additive, with materials incrementally applied in thin lawyers to create a final product under the control of a computer. The technology produces infinitely more complex designs than subtractive processing can manage.
In some uses, like rapid prototyping, 3-D printing is far cheaper than traditional manufacturing techniques. Systems can build objects without first creating custom tooling or injection molds. In the past, Ford Motor Co. would have taken up to four months and $500,000 to prototype an engine intake manifold. With 3-D printing, engineers needed only four days and $3,000. Additive manufacturing allows engineers and designers to test designs, make modifications, and test them again to a degree that would be impossible with traditional methods.
The use of 3-D printing in manufacturing differs in a crucial way from digital technology in publishing: It is very slow.
While 3-D printing can hasten prototyping, it’s unable to keep pace with the quickness of a traditional manufacturing line—for now. But considering the fact that 3D printing speeds are doubling approximately every two years, the printers of tomorrow are likely to have speeds that could allow production volumes. Furthermore, 3-D printing could change or eliminate entire steps in production, warehousing, and distribution. Consumers might eventually purchase rights to an item and run off a copy themselves, as they did with digital music and video, despite companies trying to sue individuals to prevent unpaid copying.

IHS believes that 3-D printers are unlikely to replace the factory floor, but the technology will probably change its look and operation. Small companies and even consumers will have the power to make things never before possible.
Manufacturers that see 3-D printing as only a threat to a traditional business model, and not as an opportunity to be embraced, may not survive the impact of this disruptive technology.
Alex Chausovsky is senior principal analyst for industrial automation & 3-D printing at IHS Technology
Posted December 5, 2014

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