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With increasing manufacturing costs, 3D printing is progressively becoming an option for enterprises. But with it also comes the problem of patenting and high equipment cost. Read on to find more cost-effective options in this field.

Additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing has been used for rapid prototyping since its introduction to the market in the year 1984. However, the technology failed to pick up due to its high cost, non availability of raw materials readily etc. Of late, nonetheless 3D printing has become the hot topic of discussion. The technology which has been around for very long and used in the field of aeronautics, defence and automobile has suddenly become the “in-thing”. It is expected that with a raft of patents in the technology due to expire in a few months, 2014 will see an even greater acceleration in the adoption and development of the technology. Infact, many sections of the industry are already hailing it as the next ‘Industrial Revolution’.

According to estimates provided by Gartner, rapid quality and performance innovations across all 3D printer technologies will drive enterprise and consumer demand. In its report, Gartner says that shipments are expected to increase from a total of 56,507 units in 2013 to 98,065 units, growing 75% in 2014, followed by a near doubling of unit shipments in 2015.

“By 2016, enterprise-class 3D printers will be available for under $2,000. Early adopters can experiment with 3D printers with minimal risk of capital or time, possibly gaining an advantage in product design and time to market over their competition, as well as understanding the realistic material costs and time to build parts,” the consultancy firm notes in its report.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing, a process whereby models are built up, layer by layer. In this kind of printing, a three dimensional digital file of the object is created either using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software or by 3D scanning an existing object. The printer software then divides the object in the file into hundreds or sometimes thousands of horizontal layers. The printer then adds material until the layer is complete and subsequently moves up a layer to repeat the process.

Some of the common 3D printing processes include fused deposition modeling, selective laser sintering and stereo-lithography, each using a slightly different method to deposit solid material in each layer of the build.

In India, most of the people are not aware of the 3D printing technology. “Given there are only few vendors who provide 3D printers in India, so according to me customers need education on the importance and benefits of 3D printing. It has become necessary to teach customers how 3D printers can help them to improve the design cycle,” says A.T. Rajan, Chief Marketing Officer & Head of Corporate Strategy Office at Ricoh India Ltd.

Some of the reasons for low awareness are: high cost of technology including equipment cost. Secondly, its not a very attractive option for short-term investors as it might not give quick returns. Also, most of the raw materials have to be imported and the cost for the same is very high. Thirdly, there is somehow, lack of historical evidence to match the quality and reliability of the traditional manufacturing methods. Lastly, regulatory barriers in healthcare, aerospace and automotive industries also act as a deterrent.

3D printing market

According to Gartner, the APAC 3D printer market saw shipments of 950 units in 2013 while this year it is projected to reach 1,643 units. “3D printers have historically been sold in small quantities with most of the early additive manufacturing devices sold to the North America, Western Europe and mature Asia Pacific regions – not coincidentally the countries where the major technology service providers were based. The number of printers that will be sold in these regions outpaces the numbers in the other regions by several hundred thousand units,” explains Zalak Shah, Research Analyst, Gartner.

In India, 3D printing is still at a nascent stage. However, in the recent years there has been a growing interest which is expected to help in the growth of this market. For example, one of the fastest expanding countries for the adoption of 3D printing within healthcare is in India, which is forecast to report strong growth totaling 26.15 CAGR during the period 2012 to 2018. “The 3D printing market is set to increase rapidly over the next few years and especially in re-creating and manufacturing complex parts which contain complex geometries and surfaces. 3D printers are ideal for manufacturing low volume although high value products and their application within the healthcare sector is important for manufacturing complex parts in a short time scale. 3D printing is particularly in high demand in the orthopaedicsss sector,” says Rajiv Bajaj, Head- Manufacturing, Autodesk India & SAARC.

Basically, in India, there was not much awareness about 3D printing till some years back. “There were hardly 3-4 vendors,” says Shah of Gartner. But now with increasing awareness, people are not only realising the cost benefits of the technology but also waking up to the business aspect of it. Now there are about 8-9 vendors operating in India, says Shah.

Secondly, this is a technology which can get a push only if big enterprises opt for it as SMBs lack the bandwidth to either buy a 3D printer or to subscribe to its services.

Issues in growth of 3D printing

Talking about issues plaguing the growth of 3D printing, there are plenty. Product reliability, for starters, is a major challenge for enterprises, as far as commercial use of 3D printed products is concerned. To spread the benefits of 3D printing, there is a need to provide research evidence to community, comparing traditional manufacturing methods with additive manufacturing. Moreover, material research is required to help people choose 3D printing to manufacture products with similar or better quality and reliability as through traditional manufacturing.

According to Kevin Warren, President, Global Growth, Xerox, the challenges of 3D printing are similar to the challenges of digital printing that were existent some 15 – 20 years ago. “Although the cost of 3D printers has come down considerably, they are still relatively expensive and need to come down more. Output speeds are slow and while the quality is improving it still falls short of traditional manufacturing quality,” he says.

Most industry experts believe that there should be more internal installations as prices drop and ease of use improves. “We believe the 3D market will evolve in much the same way that the digital printing market has, eventually overcoming the many challenges it faces,” adds Warren.

Some of the other challenges are related to the issue of patenting that arises with this technology. According to experts, 3D technology if not pursued carefully can give rise to many patent related legal battles. Secondly, the training of staff is another costly affair. Since, the technology is not so widespread in India, hence, training of staff requires either getting people from abroad to train them or sending the staff abroad.

Then there is also the fact about organisations being ready to adopt this technology. “There’s a high barrier of entry for a manufacturing company to get its operations and team in-order for 3D printing technology. A lot of technical expertise around 3D printing needs to be gained before a manufacturing house can incorporate 3D printing into its operations,” explains Vivekanandhavarma Datla, Head – Manufacturing Engineering Solutions, Cyient.

Lastly, software automation is another pain area in the growth of 3D printing. The bulk of the design for 3D printed objects is done by hand today and this is certainly not a very efficient approach for a manufacturer with millions of parts in its inventory. Until a streamlined and robust solution to automate the design process for 3D printing becomes readily available, this will continue to be a major bottleneck.

Disruptive features of 3D printing

While 3D printing has its own bottlenecks for growth, it has some disruptive features too which has made it the “technology in vogue”. To begin with, this kind of printing creates very little waste as compared to traditional manufacturing and hence, reduces the carbon footprint. Secondly, with the help of 3D printing, the production and assembly can be localised and only raw materials will have to be transported.

According to Bajaj of Autodesk, the 3D printing technology encompasses some major disruptions which can reshape the future of making things. Concepts like bio-mimicry, 3D bio-printing, prosthetic design have already seen success.
Bio-mimicry is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates those designs and processes. Bio-printing, on the other hand, combines the synergistic potential of engineering and biology to create living human tissues that mimic the form and function of native tissues, including dense cellularity and the presence of multiple cell types.

Autodesk customer Organovo, a creator and manufacturer of functional, three-dimensional human tissues for medical research and therapeutic use bio-printing. Organovo’s proprietary bio-printing platform captures the unique synergistic potential of engineering and biology to enable the reproducible, automated creation of living human tissues that mimic the form and function of native tissues in the body and the company recently announced the first delivery of 3D liver tissue. (can be put in a box)

In any case, as 3D printing spreads its wings across industries its users, both individuals and businesses have started designing their ingenious ways to use it. A big section of these are innovators and educators for design prototypes. With the growing acceptance it is natural to create industry disruptions, giving competition to the traditional manufacturing.

“3D printing, with its own pluses scores a few strong brownie points over traditional manufacturing. Like it caters strongly to small number or single unit production where the process owner may have his own specifications. It can be done pretty economically whereas traditionally manufacturing beats the price by volume. Navigating this disruption calls for strategic oversight and exploring how the new technology can be used in businesses,” asserts Professor Kaustubh Dhargalkar who teaches at Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research and also has a 3D printer on premise for students to learn about this new technology and innovate.

Future ahead

Though 3D printing is picking up in other parts of the world, India is slower than other markets. In any case there is hope that the technology will pick up given the diverse technological background that the country has. It is also expected, according to experts, that enterprises will soon adopt this technology for reducing manufacturing costs.

Also, to overcome the challenges that are currently deterring its growth, it is advised that machine builders partner with service providers and train them on this new technology. According to Gartner, it is more likely that 3D printing as a service will pick up faster than acquisition of 3D printers by companies.

Further, government and industry bodies should formulate policies for promoting 3D printing and support incubators embracing this technology. “A national-level program in 3D printing technology is the need of the hour,” says Datla of Cyient.

Basically, the future of 3D printing will depend entirely upon the product and the industry segment, for which we use the technology. The medical sector, for example has greatly benefited from this technology by pioneering the development and deployment of 3D printing in a number of fields. The printing of live tissue and cells may see the possibility of 3D printing replacement organs to order in the future, which will obviously have huge implications for transplants. A 3D printed jaw is the most successfully done surgical procedure till date during a facial reconstruction surgery.

To sum it up, 3D printing looks set to explode in the next year and presents huge opportunities in new and emerging markets. The simple ability to quickly and cost-effectively produce accurate, high fidelity prototypes is an invaluable part of the design process. New materials and techniques are also enabling highly complex and innovative designs previously impossible to produce, and the technology enables designers a method of low volume production of highly bespoke items.

However, these advantages do not come without potential threats. The proliferation and mass adoption of the technology and its accompanying capabilities will invariably make it harder for the companies to patent their products.

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