After years of sitting on the couch watching Star Trek, staring in awe at all the wonderful creations the crew of the Enterprise use in their daily lives, it is hard to believe elements of their futuristic life are slowly turning into our reality. Things such as the Transporter that transports crew members from location to location, the Warp Drive, which enables the enterprise to move at incredible speeds, and the Replicator, which produces exact copies of an object, are all incredible inventions that are used in the popular TV show Star Trek. Even if you’re not a Star Trek enthusiast, you might have heard about these objects and think that they are limited to the futuristic element of the show. This may not be entirely true. Although the Transporter and Warp Drive may not currently exist, a model of the Replicator, known on Earth as the 3D printer, exists!
In the early 1980s, Chuck Hall, an engineer working at a company producing UV lights, began thinking about this, previously unrealistic product, as a potentially real product. His superiors thought his idea was absurd and discouraged him from further developing this printing device (Kennedy). By the mid-1980s the 3D printer was a large, clunky object in the middle of Hall’s office. The fully functional machine allowed Hall to create three-dimensional models of two-dimensional images – something many thought was impossible.
The process is called additive manufacturing. This means that layers of material are built up one layer at a time to slowly create a three-dimensional object. There are two specific types, one is a consumer model, which is a simpler and smaller version that households can purchase, and the other is a professional or industrial model. Both work on the same additive manufacturing premise. The simpler of the two printers uses plastic, either acrylonitrile butadiene or polylactic acid, which is fed from a reel located on the side of the printer into a heated tube which causes the plastic to liquefy. The nozzle then releases the liquefied materials in lines about .1 millimeters across (Brewster). The liquefied plastic hardens quickly, which allows layers to be added on at a relatively quick speed. Using this process, a new chess piece or a toy car can be produced right in your home.
Industrial 3D printing is much more complex and uses a larger variety of printing materials, such as a clay-based filament, wood filament, metal filament, and multiple varieties of plastic filament. These materials provide companies with the ability to create a number of their products using 3D printers. A few large companies such as Ford Motor, General Electric and Mattel have already begun using 3D printing to produce some of their products. Ford Motor is using this printing method to create prototype automobile parts for their test vehicles. General Electric is creating fuel injectors for jet engines, and experimenting with the production of an ultrasound medical device. Mattel has been using this method to produce Barbie, Max Steel, and Hot Wheels. These 3D printed toys are not yet on shelves due to health and safety testing, and Ford Motors and GE have not yet placed their 3D printed components into commercial products due to the fairly recent development of this manufacturing method.
These companies have reported large benefits while using 3D printing. They found the process saved a lot of time and money during the creation of prototypes because the object can be altered through software and then printed. When using 3D printing there is no longer a need to produce various types of molds when modifying the design of a product. With the reduced need for molds, waste has also been significantly reduced because traditional techniques that generally involve cutting or drilling molded materials are no longer required (Boulton).
Aside from the immediate and very real benefits that Ford Motors, General Electric and Mattel have experienced, there is an interesting future ahead for organizations. Businesses may use 3D printing to reduce their manufacturing processes and overall costs. Companies using centralized plants can rethink this strategy and perhaps move their production more locally, which reduces shipping costs. There would also be little need for large inventories because products could be produced soon after demand is known. For example, with the use of 3D printers the auto industry could spread out more locally and can produce parts at dealerships and repair shops, and assembly plants could eliminate the need for supply chain management by making components as needed (D’Aveni). This could completely change the traditional organizational structure of businesses and result in some significant reduction in manufacturing costs, labor costs and waste levels.
Although the invention and growing popularity and production of 3D printers has the potential to revolutionize businesses and their production strategies, businesses need to think carefully before restructuring their organization to benefit from this new manufacturing device. For some companies introducing this product into their production system has worked, however some questions should be raised. Is it ethical for companies to invest in a product that significantly reduces the amount of labor needed, possibly causing thousands to be out of work, simply to become more profitable? Is it risky to place the future of business on a fairly new product? There are a few things companies need to consider in order to effectively incorporate 3D printing into their daily operations. Perhaps involving this product into a small portion of their daily production may test how well 3D printing works with a company’s product and may give companies an initial sense of how they might want to incorporate this new technology into their manufacturing process.
Boulton, Clint. “Printing Out Barbies and Ford Cylinders.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 5 June 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323372504578469560282127852>.
Brewster, Signe. “How Does a 3D Printer Work? The Science and Engineering behind This Emerging Technology — Tech News and Analysis.” Gigaom. N.p., 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://gigaom.com/2013/08/26/how-does-a-3d-printer-work-the-science-and-engineering-behind-this-emerging-technology/>.
D’Aveni, Richard A. “March 2013.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., Mar. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. <http://hbr.org/2013/03/3-d-printing-will-change-the-world/ar/1>.
Hirsh, Andrew. “Disruptive Tech Tuesday: How 3D Printing Will Change the Future of Business.” TechnologyAdvice. N.p., 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://technologyadvice.com/small-business/blog/disruptive-tech-tuesday-how-3d-printing-will-change-the-future-of-business/>.
Kennedy, Pagan. “Who Made That 3-D Printer?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/magazine/who-made-that-3-d-printer.html?_r=1&>.