A New World With 3D Printing

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing technologies have been around since the late 1980’s (3d printing industry.com, 2015). One of its earliest purpose’s was to reduce the lead time and cost of developing prototypes of new parts and devices in rapid manufacturing. Also known as additive manufacturing, it is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. This creation is achieved using additive processes, thus its name, laying down successive layers of material until an entire object has been created (3dprinting.com, 2015). However, as technology evolved over the years, 3D printing has become more cost effective to manufacturers and more common within industry. It has become a driving force for innovations in many areas, such as engineering, manufacturing, art, education and medicine (Sean V Murphy, 2015).

How Does It Work?

3D printing can be done through a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file for the creation of a totally new object. First, you must create the virtual design using a 3D printing program. Once the virtual design is completed, the software slices the design into hundreds of thousands of thin horizontal layers. The printer is then able to read every horizontal slice and begins layering each across one another until a single three-dimensional object has been formed. To print an already existing object, a 3D scanner is used. The scanner is able to make a digital copy of the object itself, and puts it into a 3D modeling program. Once uploaded into a virtual copy, the same process occurs until the three-dimensional object has been created to match the already existing one (3dprinting.com, 2015). These machines don’t extrude ink or any liquid onto a surface like a traditional printer. These machines start with an excess of liquid plastic, whether it has been cured or hardened, to form an object (Palermo, 2013).

3D Printing Technologies

There are several different technologies used in 3D printers. They include Selective Laser Melting, Electronic Beam Melting, and Laminated Object Manufacturing. However, The three most common technologies are Stereolithography, Fused Deposition Modeling and Selective Laser Sintering (Tech 3D Printing, n.a).

Stereolithography was the very first process created for prototypes in rapid manufacturing. It is an ideal solution because it is highly accurate and creates durable objects quickly and with relatively inexpensive costs. Generally, the objects produced with Stereolithography have smooth surfaces, but the quality of the object created ultimately comes down to the quality of the printer used. The amount of time it takes to create the object and the size of the object also depends on the size of the printer being used for manufacturing. Small objects printed with small machines can be created within six to twelve hours, while larger objects in larger printers can take days to be created. You can find Stereolithography technology being used in many industries from medical to manufacturing for prototype builds and sometimes for the creation of final products. For example, a car manufacturer could create a prototype door handle for a car. This prototype casting can be then tested to fit the specific form and function requirements for the car and once perfected, can then be used as the master pattern for the auto part (Palermo, 2013). The video below provides an overview of the Stereolithography process from Solid Concepts:

(Solid Concepts, 2013)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is known to be the most widely used technology in the world of 3D printing. It has become the technology of choice for industries such as the automotive and consumer goods manufacturing industries. Companies such as BMW and Lamborghini, Black and Decker, and Dial utilize this technology to build prototypes during product development and manufacturing processes. These printers use a thermoplastic filament for the creation of its objects. The benefit to thermoplastics is that they can withstand extreme heat, chemicals and mechanical stress. This allows the prototypes to withstand rigorous testing and abuse (Palermo, Fused deposition modeling, 2013). Although FDM is most popular, this process is relatively slow compared to Stereolithography and Selective Laser Sintering. The video below provides an overview of the FDM process by Solid Concepts:

(Solid Concepts, 2013)

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) begins with the same process as other technologies. However, objects printed using SLS are made from powder materials that are heated up to just below its boiling point, also known as its sintering temperature. This process fuses the particles into a solid form. For creating these objects, plastics, glass, and ceramics are used. Metal is even used in Selective Metal Laser Sintering, a process very similar to SLS. Elizabeth Palermo states “SLS has proved to be particularly useful for industries that need only a small quantity of objects printed in high quality materials” (Palermo, What is Selective Laser Sintering, 2013). This makes the process a popular choice for prototypes and finished products during the production process. Highly complex and delicate objects can be printed, as SLS doesn’t require additional tooling or molds. The aerospace industry is a great example for SLS use. The high quality materials allow manufacturers to produce prototypes using SLS without the expensive costs of physically building prototypes that can withstand damage and corrosion (Palermo, What is Selective Laser Sintering, 2013). The video below provides an overview of the SLS process by Solid Concepts:

(Solid Concepts, 2013)

3D Printing In Business Operations

While some manufacturers use 3D printing for final products, it is mainly used by manufactures in product development. What once used to be a labor-intensive industry is now becoming an automated one. Building prototypes used to be an expensive and time-consuming process. “3DP has the potential to shrink supply chains, save product development times and increase customization offerings to changing customers with expectations that products be tailored to their preferences and needs” (Pricewaterhousecoopers, 2015). It has allowed manufacturers to produce durable master molds that will drastically reduce costs while increasing efficiency. Rapid prototyping can also drastically reduce a products time to market. Ford now uses 3D printing for over 20,000 different prototype engine and vehicle parts. For example, by incorporating this technology, Ford can create a prototype cylinder head water jacket, which used to cost $20,000 to produce, now for $2,000. Cost savings of $18,000 on this one prototype alone shows how transformative 3D printing has become for manufacturers. Harold Sears, a Ford additive manufacturing technology specialist said “It allows flexibility to go through the design iterations without committing money to tooling and without having to wait for it. Dollars are an important thing for us to save, but time is the big thing.” (Bunkley, 2014). These lower costs and quicker production times allow automakers and suppliers to try out multiple designs at once, rather than using one version and having to wait and react to the test results. It ultimately helps manufacturers design faster and be more innovative in product development. The range of industries incorporating 3D printing technology reaches much further than just auto manufacturing. Some industries like the medical industry have begun using 3D printing for the final production of hearing aids as well (EnvisionTEC, 2015).

3D printing can also be found within the following industries:

  • Aerospace Industry
  • Architecture Industry
  • Automotive Industry
  • Commercial Products
  • Consumer Goods Industry
  • Consumer Electronics
  • Defense Industry
  • Dental Industry
  • Education Industry
  • Mold Industry
  • Medical Industry (Javelin Technologies , 2015)


There are several benefits that operations experience using 3D printing technology. These including cheap manufacturing, quick production, less waste, better quality, accessibility, sustainability, new shapes and structures, new combinations of materials and new business models for entrepreneurs (Tamarjan, 2012). Operations see increased innovation through quick and multiple prototype prints on demand, allowing for fast feedback and refined designs. As mentioned earlier, development costs are drastically reduced. This can happen by cutting traditional prototyping and tooling costs, being able to identify errors earlier in development and by reducing travel to production facilities. Finally, the ability to hold a full colour, realistic 3D model in your hands helps to communicate more information than a computer image could. (Goldsmith, 2013).


There are several challenges that operations face using 3D printing. First, manufacturers cannot benefit from economies of scale. Printing an object can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on the number of layers to be printed. Slow build speed is fine for prototyping, but not for mass production (Drupa, 2014). Second, there are size limitations to the object printed. An object can only be scaled to fit the platform of the printer itself. Finally, Lack of options in materials and structural integrity of some materials are a challenge when printing certain prototypes that require extensive handling and testing (Greenberg, 2014).

Future Impacts On Operations

Research by CCS insight suggests the 3D-printing market will grow to $4.8 billion by 2018, with three quarters of revenue accounting for industrial applications. “It could have a huge impact on everything from the design process to production, storage, installation and recycling” (Racounter, 2014). Local Motors is making the chassis and body of its new Strati car in low volumes using $1 million printers. “Instead of having one manufacturing location, like Detroit or Japan, we’ll have micro-factories all across the world so people come in and customize their auto-buying experience” (Bunkley, 2014). As costs continue to decline and capabilities improve, manufacturers will rely on 3D printing to shorten their product development cycles as well as cut prototype costs, reduce mechanical failures, and test new ways of raising vehicle fuel efficiency. However, it will not have much impact on the actual mass production process itself. As mentioned earlier, reaching economies of scale is not feasible as costs would be too high and volumes too low (Bunkley, 2014).

Manufacturers will begin to manufacture goods domestically, no longer relying on outsourcing to countries like China, who will no longer be the world’s manufacturing powerhouse (D’Aveni, 2013). “No workforce can be paid little enough to make up for the cost of shipping across oceans” (D’Aveni, 2013). Car parts could be made at dealerships and repair shops and assembly plants could eliminate the need for supply chain management by making the car components on demand. Goods will be infinitely more customizable as altering the designs through the software won’t require any retooling. These implications will cause businesses along the supply, manufacturing, and retailing chains to rethink their strategies and operations (D’Aveni, 2013).

What Do Managers Need To Do To Ensure Continued Success?

As 3D printing technology continues to improve it will soon be an integral aspect of product development and manufacturing. While the technology is still yet to be feasible for mass production, the growth stage of 3D printing looks promising and managers need to adapt in order to stay competitive. Managers must react quickly to the new environment using the necessary skills required in order to ensure continued success as the manufacturing industry drastically changes. This may require the re-evaluation of their strategic plan docket.

They will need to re-evaluate the supply chain and supply chain management. This means changing its structure as this new technology is beginning to change the market. This will also require that they maintain close relationships and communicate effectively between suppliers and buyers during this shift. Outsourcing may be a viable option for some manufacturers. To determine this, it will require that they have extensive knowledge on the new technology, the expertise required, and the cost analysis skills to determine the most appropriate response.

Finally, Depending on whether they outsource or produce in house, this may have a major effect on system design. They will need to re-evaluate their system design and operations planning/inventory management.

In the coming future, it will no longer be a decision of whether to start incorporating 3D printing into the manufacturing process. It will be a matter of when and how this incorporation takes place, in order to ensure continued success.

Exam Question

What are some of the things managers will need to do to ensure continued success in this growing industry?


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