The recent broadening in knowledge and understanding about 3D printing and additive manufacture have generated new business ideas and opportunities ranging from home hobby machines to printing buildings on other planets. Frédéric Vacher, of Dassault Systemes reveals some exciting options.

3D printers are already used extensively in automotive, aerospace and consumer goods industry applications to validate form. Over the last three decades considerable business and technical experience has been built up in enterprises that use this technology and in many cases Dassault Systemes 3DEXPERIENCE Platform is instrumental to its creative and efficient usage. On this foundation, and now that prices are falling, many more machines are being put into service.

Not only have 3D printers become less expensive, their capabilities have evolved. Machines that can print titanium, aluminium, silver and now carbon fibre, are revolutionising many businesses including, for example, jewellery making, by enabling production of shapes and designs that could not be made by conventional techniques. The opportunity to show people what a design will look like – even make a plastic example first, allows people to acquire often-unique pieces with no risk of disappointment or surprise at the outcome. The same idea is current in the life sciences industry where dentists will soon be able to produce perfect crowns on demand from in-houses machine while other types of medical implant could be literally made to measure. There are opportunities throughout these developments for new types of services that will evolve to help companies make the most of the technology. Manufacturing is entering a renaissance where start-ups can produce brilliantly designed high quality products without the need for a factory.

Light bulb moment

In the past, to have an idea for a product was one thing but to have it made was quite another. 3D printers have changed that, so now a single product can be made, small batches are easy to produce and individual customization has become practical. If demand increases, more machines can be simply added to meet it.

Additional materials are coming onto the market and the ability to mix them during printing offers more scope for opportunity. For example some manufacturers that Dassault Systèmes works with stock standard products that are finished to individual customer specification at the last minute. This facilitates stock holding reductions with massively increased product range flexibility. Companies that show manufactures how to do this are in demand because when technology is used this way it leads directly to higher margins through a more efficient use of resources.

Existing manufacturing can easily adapt to accommodate 3D printing and many successfully deploy it extensively. New types of companies are also emerging that exploit the reduced cost base of 3D printing set-ups. These offer innovation through flexibility that is hard to match in a more traditional manufacturing environment.

There are opportunities too in the spares industry. Companies that are obliged to provide spare parts for many years, such as in the automotive or aerospace industry, face storage and logistics costs with ‘dead’ stock. With 3D printing it is simple to maintain ‘digital spares’ that are printed to order. That means that any amount of digital spare parts can be held in stock indefinitely. This effectively extends products lives with all the reputational and environmental benefit that brings.

Fast and Faster

Dassault Systèmes Aerospace, F1, satellite, consumer product and life science customers are increasing their 3D printer deployment to help them innovate faster. And in areas of economic under development where industry has not taken a foothold 3D design and printing is also offering great business innovation potential. Creating products locally means that new agile businesses can start with low investment, minimal infrastructure and potentially high returns. The ability to manufacture to demand is very appealing in poor areas of the world that view 3D printing as a way to leapfrog the industrial world’s production and development cycles. Innovative manufactures are benefiting from this development by siting machines across the world to take advantage of operating conditions and energy costs.

Military and security services also see 3D printing as a way to avoid lengthy spare parts procurement supply chains by making parts and equipment on-site.

Robot Builders in Space

Many people belief that Man’s future includes colonising other planets. Development of technologies for mining asteroids is already underway and in 20 years mining in space may be a reality.

Robotised 3D printing and other manufacturing in space could be an alternative to sending product supplies from Earth. It is predicted that the first permanent off Earth dwellings will be built by robots using 3D printing techniques developed for the materials and conditions that are found on other planets.

This long-term business opportunity has already spawned several development companies with Richard Branson and Google’s Larry page as investors. Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE technology currently helps in the design and construction of the systems and vehicles, to get people into space. All the subsequent systems for exploring, mining, refining and manufacturing of goods for use either in space or for return to Earth could be developed using the same technology.

Back on Earth 3D printing offers a lot to the education market. Recent studies at Queens University in Belfast proved that Dassault Systèmes digital 3D animated models are very effective teaching and training tools in comparison to written or verbal instruction. When this is coupled to the ability to output students’ work as 3D physical models, learning is further accelerated. The imagination is also fired when students use additive manufacturing techniques to make ‘impossible’ shapes and effectively produce ‘something from nothing’. Adding social networking and communication to the mix enables student collaboration, ideas exchange and further innovation from young minds. This can spawn low cost start up manufacturing businesses that students can develop on graduation.

Fab Gear

Started as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). Fab Labs aim at developing programmable molecular assemblers able to make almost anything. Projects in Fab Labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, computers and equipment for agriculture and healthcare, housing, and printing complete working machines, including 3D printers. Not surprisingly there are many business opportunities and new enterprise scenarios being developed around Fab Labs and their intensive use of 3D design technology.

Another idea is for people to use designers’ basic forms to customise their own products. This means that people without design skills can partner with designers to create new products. As 3D printing prices fall this market driven by ‘collective intelligence’ will inevitably grow. Scanning an item with your phone and making a part is also not far away. This means, for example, people could scan, make, repair and replace parts rather than discard products because one component is faulty.

The financial argument is strong because there is immediate return through money saved. Roadside breakdown repairers could even manufacture parts on the way to a vehicle that has communicated directly with a 3D printer on-board the recovery vehicle.

In the coming years 3D printing is set to grow exponentially and, as it does new business opportunities will abound. Correctly positioning a business to capitalise on that prospect presents many exciting ways for enterprises to flourish in this inspiringly innovative technological era.

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