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Printing the future

 3D printing is set to disrupt the channel by bringing manufacturing closer to home.

Printing in 3D has come a long way since its invention in 1967. The IDC reports that 3D printing spending (on hardware, materials, software, and services) will reach $12 billion this year, an increase of 19.9% over 2017.

The rise in popularity can be contributed to breakthroughs in the technology that run the machines and the types of materials that can now be used to print objects. No longer is it only thin, cheap plastic substrates being used for small prototypes, but there are now machines capable of handling materials like tool steel, cement, chocolate, and even human tissue – as well as handling multiple materials together.

The machines have also become faster at printing and capable of printing much larger products in the last few years.

“Advancements and breakthroughs on the technology side are fuelling wider adoption and greater utilisation of 3D printing systems across a range of industries,” says Tim Greene, IDC research director for hardcopy peripherals and 3D printing.

“Even though there are amazing innovations nearly every day in the way 3D printers are used in key industries, including automotive, aerospace, and medical, we believe that we’re still just scratching the surface of the potential for 3D printing as an enabler of digital transformation.” Early hype had us believe that 3D printers would be in every home or office. That’s not happening yet, but they’re increasingly being seen in manufacturing line-ups.

General Motors announced in May this year it’s working with Autodesk to manufacture new, lightweight 3D-printed parts for its electric vehicles. The company said in a press conference that 3D printing parts reduces the need for several parts and suppliers, and has the added benefit of making the part lighter and stronger.

The IDC expects worldwide spending to be nearly $20 billion in the next five years.
 
“3D printing solutions have moved well beyond prototyping, to become prevalent within and across multiple industries,” says Marianne D’Aquila, IDC research manager for customer insights and analysis.

Supply chain shortened

One of the famous examples of how 3D printing could be used in the not-too-distant future was NASA sending blueprints to astronauts at the International Space Station and having them print out designs using a special 3D printer. The experiment was successful and NASA said it was the first step towards establishing an on-demand machine shop in space.

The imagined future is that eventually any business, anywhere, will not order parts from a supplier but, instead download the design from the internet and print it themselves – or have it printed at the local 3D printing shop, thereby cutting shipping costs drastically, eliminating the need to have multiple suppliers, as well as adding the ability to customise each unit. While this isn’t a reality at the moment for the person on the street, the predicted spend in the space suggests industries are looking into the solution.
 
David Rozzio, MD for HP Africa (one of the key 3D printer manufacturers), says when 3D printing becomes pervasive: “It will fundamentally change the way we conceive, design, produce, distribute, and consume nearly everything, with enormous impact to jobs, industries and economies.”

He says designers will be able to create entirely new categories of products. “They will be unconstrained by traditional processes as the line between idea and physical reality erodes.”

 Rozzio says manufacturers will move physically closer to the consumer – as they will no longer be tethered to overseas factories – and shorten supply chains with the newfound ability to custom-produce anything, anytime, anywhere.
 
Local (lack of) action
 
He says 3D printing is revolutionising supply chains as the technology allows for economically viable small batch production runs. It does away with large storage facilities as products and parts can be printed only when they are needed, and allows redesigns or upgrades to happen much faster – as old stock doesn’t have to be used up.

Rozzio says: “3D printing presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for nations around the globe, and South Africa needs to play its cards now”.

A.T. Kearney recently released an index that measures the degree to which an array of countries’ labour skills, industrial capabilities, governance, and economic assets support 3D printing. In the lead are the US, Germany, and and South Korea. South Africa, while featured on the index, is right at the bottom with Poland, Vietnam, Kenya and Nigeria.

The research firm said the lower-ranked countries were placed there because they don’t have all of the macroeconomic factors to embrace 3D printing. “To move ahead, these ‘followers’ will need government engagement and policies that promote technology adoption and infrastructure development.”

Rozzio says for South Africa to seize opportunities in 3D printing, policymakers need to build an ecosystem by educating, incentivising, and pushing adoption. Education is important because, he says, there’s currently a skills gap in designing for 3D printing in South Africa and that it will be necessary to build the capabilities of engineers to understand and design for 3D printing, as well as to promote research into 3D printing materials to help increase variety and reduce costs.
 
Incentives such as tax breaks, grants, and other means to help users leverage 3D and promote localisation of manufacturing, says Rozzio, will enable innovation and ultimately drive down cost barriers and reduce risks for investors in the technology.

Rozzio says adoption can be pushed by increasing awareness of the technology and demonstrating the value-add of 3D printing. He adds that policymakers will have to ensure there’s an appropriate legal framework in place; aspects such as IP protection, regulatory infrastructure, and liability should be reviewed with industry leaders.

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