It’s not often that innovations in manufacturing methods capture mainstream attention. The vast majority of consumers are more concerned with the finished product – the features, the look, the costs, and the estimated time of arrival, than with how it was created. With the possible exception of robotics technologies, it is probably safe to say that people not involved with manufacturing are generally disinterested with new developments in manufacturing engineering.

But 3D printing – a new production process which can be used not only by industrial manufacturers but by consumers as well, has begun to penetrate the public consciousness. This powerful new set of techniques and tools has the potential to revolutionize the production of a wide variety of consumer products.

3D Printing | The Future of Manufacturing

© | Iaremenko Sergii

In this article, we will look at: 1) a definition of 3D printing, 2) a history of 3D printing, 3) trends in manufacturing, 4) commercial usage of 3D printing, 5) consumer usage of 3D printing, 6) the future of 3D printing, 7) the benefits of 3D printing, and 8) the challenges of 3D printing.


3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital file through an additive process. An additive process is a process in which layers of material are added consecutively, one atop the other, until the final product is developed. In 3D printing, a digital model of the desired object is created using a 3D computer aided design program. The model is sliced into very thin layers, which are then printed, starting from the bottom and extending upward until the object is fully formed.

Methods of 3D Printing

This general description of 3D printing encapsulates two of the most common methods of 3D printing: granular materials binding and extrusion deposition.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) – a form of granular materials binding, uses a laser to meld powdered printing materials into the designed shape.

Polymeric Selective Laser Sintering Process Explanation

Fused deposition modeling (FDM), a form of extrusion deposition, uses a heated nozzle to supply the printing material in layers, as well as materials for a separate scaffold-like structure.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) Technology

Other methods include:

Current and potential 3D printing materials

Currently, 3D printers can create objects out of a wide range of materials, including plastics, polymers, metal alloys, ceramics, glass, concrete, paper…even food! However, most home printers are limited to ABS, a plastic as string as LEGO blocks, and a few other materials. Reason for that? Small-scale versions of the technology are still being perfected. Industrial and academic researchers are exploring ways to increase the number and quality of materials that can be used by consumers. Industrial manufacturers, using more expensive and versatile 3D printers, can develop products using a much broader base of materials. They are also exploring a number of potential materials, such as graphene and nanomaterials, which might yield exciting new products.


3D printing has its roots in rapid prototyping – the industrial process of quickly developing scale models of goods or parts to assist in the manufacturing process. Additive manufacturing was theorized as early as 1890. In the 1950s, a patent was filed for a technique that was the precursor to stereo-lithography, and in the 1970s, academics and industrial researchers experimented with techniques to fabricate 3D materials with techniques similar to extrusion deposition and granular materials binding. In 1982, Hideo Kodama published an account of a solid 3D printer object, but it was not until 1984, that the first 3D printer was produced. It was developed by Charles Hull of 3D Systems Corp and created 3D objects using stereolithography; however, in the 1980s, the technology was expensive, and thus relegated to industrial prototyping for years. However, in recent years, with advances in computer and manufacturing technologies, 3D printers can be purchased for as little as $1,000. Further, the proliferation of the technology has led manufacturers and even consumers to use 3D printing to create final products.


Whether 3D printing is a fad or here to stay, major firms are investing heavily in it. Just how much it will disrupt traditional manufacturing techniques remains to be seen.

Brief overview of current manufacturing techniques

Today’s manufacturing techniques are varied depending on the product being produced. However, most fall under the aegis of what is known as subtractive manufacturing – creating a product by removing unwanted elements from a set of raw materials. Examples of subtractive manufacturing include:

  • Cutting;
  • Filtering;
  • Distilling;
  • Milling;
  • Boring;
  • Sawing;
  • Mining;
  • Drilling;
  • Reaming, among others.

With the rise of automated tools and innovations in manufacturing technologies, subtractive manufacturing can be tremendously efficient, but can still create significant waste, and attendant environmental issues. Further, such waste potentially represents lost revenue.

Additive manufacturing

By contrast, additive manufacturing involves the precision layering of materials at the molecular level, creating very little waste. Additive manufacturing can reduce costs by prefabricating objects with holes and grooves already in them (thus reducing the labor cost and time of having workers do this work).

Small Empires: Shapeways and the business of 3D printing


While industrial 3D printing technology is being refined, to ensure finished parts do not corrode for example, many manufacturing firms are invested in a day when they can produce major components of large products, such as vehicles and turbines, in-house quickly and cheaply.

Adoption of 3D printing by manufacturers

Firms that have integrated 3D printing into their manufacturing operations to create not only prototypes, but finished parts and/or products, include General Electric, Boeing, Ford, Nike, Hershey’s, Hasbro, Ford, Mattel and more. As per a recent industry study of manufacturers in 2014 (by PricewaterhouseCoopers and The Manufacturing Institute):

  • “25% are using 3D printing for prototyping only.
  • 10% are using it for both prototyping and the production of final parts.
  • 1% is using it for final parts production only.
  • 64% apparently aren’t using it at all.”

This indicates slow adoption and considerable room for growth. While the total worldwide market for 3D printing products and services was only $3.07 billion in 2013, it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34.9% and reach $16.2 billion by 2018.

Types of manufacturers using this process

Despite the slow adoption of the technology, a wide variety of types of manufacturers are using it for many common manufacturing applications, such as prototyping, manufacturing of parts or finished goods, customization, assembly, and finishing. These include manufacturers of toys, medical devices, aviation parts, electronics, auto parts, jewelry, sneakers, and edible products, among others.

3D Printing – National Geographic: Known Universe – Print Tools


Beyond the commercial market for 3D printers and printing services is a burgeoning consumer market, which is expected to fuel much of the growth of the overall market through 2018.

Consumer Market

Currently the consumer market is estimated at approximately $75 million in 2014. It is projected to grow to $1.2 billion by 2018. Approximately 2/3rds of that market is in the U.S., with 41,000 of the 63,000 printers sold in 2013 there.


One reason for the relatively small size of the consumer market today is cost. Home printers, using the FDM technology, can range from $1,000 to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. There are some efforts to bring cheaper printers to market – printers ranging from $100 to $499. SLS printers, which cost as much as a quarter million dollars and can print on more materials than FDM materials, were patent-protected until January of 2014. The expiration of patents on the FDM process led to the rise of the home FDM printer and drastic price drops. SLS printers may, likewise, hit the consumer market with similar price reductions.

Typical uses

Currently, the average 3D printer owner is a hobbyist, and uses their 3D printer to print novelty items, like plastic figures.

3D Printing: Make anything you want


Despite the current limitations of 3D printing, as the technology develops, its future is bright.

Future applications of 3D printing

The PricewaterhouseCoopers and The Manufacturing Institute survey indicated that the two top concerns among manufacturers regarding the adoption of 3D printing were the quality of the finished product, and lack of talent to harness the technology. However, most experts agree that the technology is developing by leaps and bounds, fueled by the adoption and R&D efforts of current commercial early adopters, such as GE (which recently announced the creation of a $50 million 3D manufacturing plant in Alabama). We can expect the quality of industrial 3D printed products to continue to increase, and the talent pool to grow as the demand for talent does. Already, with regards to commercial printers, prices are falling, speed is increasing, and the range of materials is expanding. Continued advancements in the printing process and commercial adoption could create sleeker and lighter machine parts that perform just as well as their traditionally manufactured counterparts; greater quality control in their manufacture; and more efficient distribution of machine products.

GE Aviation, which is using high volume 3D printing to create airplane parts, may be a pioneer. But the medical industry is eyeing 3D printing enthusiastically. Medical researchers have been working to engineer replacement organs through 3D printing (known as bio-printing). The layering process of bio-printing holds the promise for replicating strata of cells. This may not be possible for several years or decades. However, bones and teeth are also possibilities currently being realized. Already the first skull, created from a 3D printer, has successfully been implanted in a human being, and this practice may expand. Using digital images of internal organs, doctors can rapidly model full human organs in order to diagnose sicknesses. Pharmaceutical companies can also test the impact of drugs on prototyped bio-printed living tissues. Further, the additive manufacturing process can be used to enhance the precision of common medical implements from surgical tools to prosthetics.

Societal impact of 3D printing

The widespread adoption of additive manufacturing by commercial manufacturing, coupled with improvements in the technology that would increase quality and volume of its products, could potentially be extremely lucrative for firms with the intellectual property, talent, marketing and distribution networks to leverage it. By lowering production costs, it could also give rise to new entrants in the manufacturing space, a possibility U.S. President Obama recently noted may be a recipe for job growth. More disruptive to industry could be the proliferation of consumer 3D printers. If the average person can create their household goods in their homes, what happens to those businesses? How does one protect intellectual property if anyone can make a copy of any object? These questions may reshape many industries in the years to come.

Further, the use of bio-printing has not been embraced by everyone – ethical issues abound. For example, what are the ramifications of enhancing organs? How will life-saving bio-printing technologies be distributed equally among all members of society? And so on. Another ethical issue is the potential weaponization of this technology. Already, a fully functioning gun has been created using a 3D printer. And while there is a ban on plastic weapons in the U.S., the U.S. Army has also made clear its intentions to leverage this technology for the creation of weapons parts.

The issues raised by this technology must be addressed. But fundamentally, 3D printing has a real potential to improve the quality of living for people across the globe. Rapid and inexpensive production of goods that most in developed nations take for granted, such as water filters and piping, could substantially increase the standard of living and life expectancy for billions in impoverished countries. Additionally, bringing rapid manufacturing capabilities, such as bio-printing or parts for prefabricated shelters, to the scenes of natural and/or man-made disasters could save lives.


The benefits of 3D printing are many. Commercial usage of 3D printing could make manufacturing more efficient, more rapid, less expensive, and less wasteful. This could lead to lower prices for consumers, and fewer harmful impacts to the environment. Further, widespread commercial adoption of 3D printing could spur innovation: if it is more difficult for firms to compete based on (production and) distribution speed, their product differentiation efforts may yield new and create features and discoveries.

The widespread adoption of consumer 3D printing potentially has even more wide-ranging benefits. Consumers may one day be able to print all of their household needs inside their house, given the right base materials. Imagine replacing a broken lampshade or picture frame with a few keystrokes of your tablet! This is no mere speculation; firms envision this future too. For example, Ford Motor believes one-day consumers will be able to replace their own auto parts.


The major challenges of commercial 3D printing are:

  • Variety of usable materials – this is fairly sizable, but not as extensive as those used by traditional manufacturing processes;
  • Quality and safety concerns –firms must ensure that these new products meet existing safety standards and there is some skepticism among manufacturers that they do;
  • Concerns about intellectual property protections;
  • Production speed – many traditional manufacturing processes outpace 3D printing, especially in high-volume production runs; and
  • Expense – the cost of high-speed, quality printers is dropping, but still expensive depending on the 3D printing production method used.

The major challenges of consumer 3D printing are:

  • The paucity of 3D printing materials available – most affordable printers are limited to ABS and one or two other materials that make complex printed objects impossible;
  • Price – like commercial printers, while the prices are dropping, they have not fallen to levels that would encourage widespread consumer adoption;
  • Safety concerns – some printing materials, such as plastic filaments and powders, must be subjected to high temperatures to be molded;
  • Ease to use – the interface for these printers is nowhere near the level of intuitiveness or simplicity of a Windows or Mac OS;
  • Limited design availability – some printing companies have made more complex design files available via their website, but these files are not in standard formats that can be applied across model and type of printer;
  • Limited consumer knowledge of engineering – printing complex products outside of the universe of available designs on one’s own requires knowledge of engineering practices and principles; and
  • Fragmentation of the current consumer market, and lack of a compelling consumer application.

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