Is 3D Printing The Next Industrial Revolution?

It was in 1909 when Henry Ford, master of efficiency and standardization, famously said that a “customer can have a car painted any color…so long as it is black.” While the First Industrial Revolution introduced machines to replace hand labor, Ford helped usher in what was ultimately the principle of mass production; using those machines to produce large quantities of standardized products — an era that came to be known as the Second Industrial Revolution.

Today, more than one hundred years since Ford made his industry-defining statement, 3D printing is making its way forward in the mainstream and is allowing anyone to create customized products on demand at affordable prices. No longer do products need to be the same; we can now tailor products to meet our individual needs at little or no extra cost.

Are today’s digital manufacturing capabilities making standardization obsolete? Could we possibly be on the verge of replacing mass production altogether? Are we sitting on the edge of the Third Industrial Revolution?

How we currently make things

To better understand how 3D printing could disrupt mass production as we know it, it’s helpful to look at the fundamental differences between conventional production technologies.

At its core, mass production is about scale — where the cost of manufacturing per unit decreases as production quantity increases. The principle behind this mechanism is that an investment is made toward manufacturing facilities that can typically produce multiples of the same thing efficiently.

An estimated 30 percent of all manufactured goods end up as waste within months of rolling off the production line.

Producing (and ultimately selling) a lot of those “things” decreases the relative cost of the initial investment, which, in turn, allows the product to be sold at a lower price point to further increase demand. As demand continues to grow for a particular product, the costs of production can continue to go down, while relative profit margins per unit increase — a concept referred to as economies of scale.

So while economic growth can be achieved when economies of scale are realized, this brings us to a fundamental flaw of mass production: Products cannot be sold until they’re produced.

Although market forecasting and million-dollar sales teams can help guide manufacturing order decisions, an estimated 30 percent of all manufactured goods end up as waste within months of rolling off the production line. Meaning, the contents in three out of every 10 shipping containers will be thrown away before ever reaching the consumer.

At the same time that these products are on their way to the landfill, production facilities in low-wage countries (including China, Brazil or Indonesia) are already working on their next manufacturing order — thus beginning again the cycle of wasted energy consumption, packaging, labor and raw materials.

Mass production versus 3D printing

3D printing — or additive manufacturing — on the other hand, is fundamentally different from the bottom up.

From a cost perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether each 3D printed product is the same or different; additive manufacturing has no need for standardized molds. This allows for fully customized or even personalized products to be produced at the same cost.

Mass production is a remarkably efficient system.

Of course, the flip side of this is that 3D printing doesn’t have as steep of a price drop when bringing up economies of scale — at least when compared to mass production as it exists today. Therefore, a 3D-printed product may bring more value to an individual user, but is generally more expensive than a mass-produced product.

When products are produced through 3D printing they are modeled or purchased digitally before any manufacturing has taken place; production is on demand. Once purchased, the production of these products can happen locally — as local as one’s own living room, even — as 3D printers are compact and automated. Because of its locality, there is no need for stock, no need for shipping and, perhaps most importantly, no waste.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the question has been raised repeatedly about whether the “3D Industrial Revolution” can replace mass manufacturing; creating personalized objects on demand sounds almost too good to be true. Well, in part, it is. It turns out that mass production is a remarkably efficient system that is notoriously hard to beat on standardization and price.

Apples and pears

Without question, mass manufacturing is ideal for creating large quantities of products where standardization is beneficial. While current 3D printing technologies cannot compete with existing prices (or even quality), the core benefits of 3D printing — on demand, personalization and design complexity — add little or no value to many product categories that exist in the mass manufacturing space. Hence, mass manufacturing systems can be expected to remain the dominant form of production in many industries.

That said, there are plenty of product categories where the benefits of 3D printing are already beginning to make a significant difference. Specifically, these include products that are made in relatively low quantities (limited scale), have a need for personalization or are simply impossible to make with conventional manufacturing technologies.

3D printing has the potential to create a whole new powerful product category.

Industries such as fashion, aerospace, medicine and food have already been showing signs of disruption with the introduction of additive manufacturing technologies. The most significant benefit of 3D printing isn’t that it could replace mass manufacturing in its current form, but, rather, it will introduce an entirely new category of products.

For example, take an everyday thing like Nike running shoes. All models are mass manufactured as the same product — standardized size differences notwithstanding. But with the introduction of NikeiD, the Portland, Oregon-based sportswear giant opened the door to let users customize the product specific to their needs — aesthetic or otherwise.

Now imagine the near future. You’re shopping online for a pair of new shoes and the NikeiD server now contains a complete 3D scan of your foot included in your user account. It is now possible to customize your shoes not only by color but by form, based on the exact shape of your foot.

By producing the shoes using 3D printing, retailers like Nike can custom-tailor shoes specific to a user’s needs — not unlike how men have had their suits custom-tailored by hand for centuries. Because modern 3D printers can be stored within an average retail environment, or even at home, this allows for the custom shoes to be printed almost exactly at the point of purchase.

All of a sudden, we’re going from a manufacturing model that produces a lot of the same product and ships it to a location in hopes of a sale, to a manufacturing model that makes the sale, produces only what is needed and delivers items within 24 hours. Of course, this may double the price of an existing pair of $150 shoes, but it’s not hard to imagine how a new breed of shoe produced as such could make standardization look like a relic from the past — regardless of the price.

Similar examples could be used regarding our approach to food and medicine. Despite nearly every person having vastly different dietary and health needs, dietary and health advice has been standardized for millions in the United States alone. In the age of the wearable and the health-monitoring smartphone, there’s a future that puts this data to good use — such as through prescription meds or vitamin supplements customized for each and every individual.

Ultimately, when we look at the potential of 3D printing, it’s clear that mass manufacturing will not be completely eradicated. Its efficiency and scale has clear benefits for specific product categories. Nonetheless, 3D printing has the potential to create a whole new powerful product category, to eliminate the need for complex supply chains and excessive waste while decentralizing production, wealth and knowledge.

In the long run, 3D printing can help create a “decentralized, rural-based, self-reliant economy,” where production and consumption are once again reunited.