Even as the global manufacturing sector steps on the innovation pedal to accelerate growth, the nascent 3D printing technology - also known as additive manufacturing - promises to transform the sector's growth prospects. A wide range of industries including defense, aerospace, automotive and metals manufacturing has already sized up the advantage of employing 3D printing technology.
3D printing technology has been cited as one among the fastest-moving technologies in Gartner Inc.'s 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, the other technologies being Big Data, activity streams, Internet TV, Near Field Communication (NFC) payment, cloud computing and media tablets. Now, the US Federal Government has decided to build an Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. This institute will be supported by a consortium of manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges, and non-profit organizations, a collaborative framework that could soon find resonance in other countries. The Federal Government plans to set up 14 more such innovation institutes across the country.
Sometime earlier, Airbus had stated that it is drawing up plans to create a plane from a 3D printer, by 2050. The aircraft is also expected to be a lot lighter and therefore more economical to operate.
Amid these developments, several venture capital funds and research foundations are likely to channelize financial resources for the development and application of this technology. As a case in point, the Thiel Foundation recently made a $350,000 donation to a company called Modern Meadow for using 3D printing technology to 'print meat'. Modern Meadow was founded by two tech-entrepreneurs who developed and commercialized bio-printing — a technology that iteratively constructs tissues and organ structures based on computer-controlled delivery of cells in three dimensions.
A disruptive technology like 3D printing can be adopted by large and small manufacturing firms alike. At a macro-level, widespread adoption of this technology will enable decentralization of manufacturing activities. As this technology evolves, governments, innovation labs and manufacturing industries are sure to work double-quick to leverage its inherent strengthens to transform the manufacturing landscape. But like any other nascent technology, 3D printing also raises some concerns. What measures are needed to prevent illegal manufacture of goods like firearms? Will customized manufacturing result in higher cost of production (A recent report referred to a company offering 3D-printed shoes at $900 a pair!)? What would be your concerns around it?