Layer Upon Layer: A Future Built on Additive Manufacturing

Article by Tom Serres

We are  just beginning to tap into additive manufacturing’s true potential. Below I highlight some of the most important benefits the technology holds for the global economy.

Shortening and Simplifying Global Supply Chains

Long supply chains can become extremely complex and inflexible. As a result, companies struggle to adequately meet the needs of different customer groups. Long supply chains also have many externalities that can increase costs, such as rising fuel or labor prices.
Fortunately, additive manufacturing provides a solution for many of the issues inherent in modern supply chains. Additive manufacturing makes it possible to make parts and products close to where they are needed, thus significantly shortening the supply chain that would normally be required to move them from manufacturers to consumers. The technology also makes it possible to reach economies of scale with lower levels of investment. Thus manufacturers have more flexibility in their product offerings.

Providing for More Sustainable Manufacturing

In today’s manufacturing landscape, companies are increasingly searching for opportunities to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Sustainable manufacturing saves companies money on energy inputs and increases the appeal of their products to younger consumers. Additive manufacturing will play a key role in achieving higher levels of sustainability. The technology is capable of substantially reducing both material waste and the energy required to make products.
Through these advantages, additive manufacturing can also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by manufacturers. By 2025, 3D printing technology could reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 525.5 metric tons.

Bringing Economic Opportunities to Emerging Markets

Additive manufacturing technology presents some of its greatest value in developing markets. Because they are relatively inexpensive, 3D printers can be put to use by small businesses in emerging markets without the need to invest millions of dollars into factory equipment. The technology is already entering the economies of poorer countries in a meaningful way, and analysts predict the total value of the 3D printing industry in emerging markets will reach $4.5 billion by 2020.
3D printing technology also promises to create new, well compensated jobs in emerging market economies. Protoprint is a prime example of this. The Indian company recycles plastic wastes into new filament for FDM additive manufacturing machines. The company has not only made it possible to remove refuse from landfills but also improved pay for waste pickers.

Overhauling the Global Construction Industry

Although we may think of 3D printers as primarily for small parts and products, they’re already proving very effective in construction. As in other areas, analysts anticipate the technology will greatly reduce operational costs. Some project up to a 50 percent reduction on the cost of building a house with additive manufacturing.
These applications require very different machines from the small devices used to print plastic and metal parts. These printers are instead large devices that extrude concrete layer-by-layer. Concrete 3D printers are also generally mobile despite their large size.
Several projects have already sought to prove the efficacy of additive manufacturing in construction projects. San Francisco startup Apis Cor is among the most prominent of these initiatives. The additive manufacturing upstart was able to print a 400-square foot house in only 24 hours for a cost of slightly over $10,000. More recently, a firm printed a considerably larger house in France in just 54 hours, again demonstrating a considerable cost savings compared to more traditional construction methods.
Firms and municipalities are also applying additive manufacturing to much larger commercial and infrastructure projects. A 3D-printed bridge in the Netherlands recently became the first piece of major public infrastructure to be created with additive manufacturing techniques. Meanwhile, the emirate of Dubai has planned an ambitious investment in additive manufacturing construction. By 2025, the city will require that at least 25 percent of every new building be constructed using additive manufacturing.

Turning Consumers Into Manufacturers

Beyond shortening supply chains, additive manufacturing allows consumers to manufacture products for themselves. The average price of 3D printers is rapidly decreasing. Consequently, consumers may begin manufacturing an increasing array of products  themselves. Under this revolutionary model of manufacturing, businesses would sell 3D design files to consumers who could then print products on their home 3D printers.
There are still challenges to be overcome, despite the vast potential for consumer-level manufacturing to fundamentally change the global economy. For now, only dedicated DIY enthusiasts have the skills and knowledge required to print products through this model. And a single device still cannot easily make products from more than one material, which presents a problem. However,  multi-material printers may solve this issue in the near future.
Only time will tell exactly how widely used additive manufacturing technology will become. But we are all sure to be profoundly rethinking how we make and distribute products soon.