There is not a day goes by that you don’t hear about additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly known.
While the technology may have been around for more than 20 years and some patents have already expired, its rapid adoption in a number of fields such as aeronautics and medicine has created unprecedented interest, particularly with investors. But it’s not easy for local manufacturing SMEs to see how they can benefit from this technology nor how it could change their business model. Where should they start?
I find this field fascinating and I met with Martin Lavoie, Executive Director of Canada Makes, a national organization dedicated to promoting the adoption and development of advanced and additive manufacturing, to demystify the topic.
Myths and realities about additive manufacturing (3D printing)
Myth no. 1: Everybody will have a 3D printer at home.
Not really. It’s a bit unrealistic to think that 3D printing will be as common in our homes as a microwave oven or personal computer. This idea brought some companies, such as Stratasys to extraordinary heights only to have them drop back to earth. However, the industrial market, in particular for rapid prototyping and tool manufacturing, quickly adopted the 3D printer and service centre business model.
Myth no. 2: 3D printers can only be used for plastic toys.
If that’s what you think, you haven’t Googled 3D printing in a long time! 3D printers can print a wide array of materials, from thermoplastics and composite materials to the most exotic metals, such as titanium. A Montreal entrepreneur has even developed a printer that can print nanomaterials. It’s expected that machines capable of printing conductive materials will soon be marketed, which will revolutionize the electronic products market.
Myth no. 3: Only large businesses can afford these expensive printers.
This market diversified extensively and quickly. While some industrial metal printers may cost over $500,000, industrial plastic printers sell for under $100,000. There is something to suit all tastes and budgets. For example, at the RAPID conference in the U.S. this month, one business introduced a metal printer costing $120,000.
Myth no. 4: In the future, everything will be printed.
Obviously not! It will always be more cost effective to machine many goods, parts and industrial components. It is true though that some complex parts could not be machined and will have to be produced on a 3D printer in the future. It’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of 3D printing on the basis of what you manufacture. Get advice from an expert who can help you develop a 3D printing business plan.
Myth no. 5: The technology is too recent, it’s not worth investing in it yet.
Reality could catch up with you sooner than you think. Consider companies such as General Electric, Siemens, Ford, United Technologies Corporation to name but a few that are using 3D printing technology for their parts and components. If you are in these companies’ supply chain, no matter how distantly, or in the same industry, you would be wise to look into this now. You could hire a coop student who has a bit of additive manufacturing experience to prepare a feasibility study. Now is the time when you should determine where adopting this technology could make sense for you. If the feasibility study seems positive, take the plunge, work with a service centre. After all, you’re an entrepreneur and a good entrepreneur never passes up a growth opportunity.
If you haven’t seen remarkable examples in aeronautics, I invite you to view some GE videos, which can be found here:
Another example is the Norsk (Rapid Plasma Deposition) part for the Boeing 787 (which is finished by Mecachrome in Mirabel!):