Innovation

Why 3D printing is to manufacturing as computers were to the workplace: A conversation with Bob McCutcheon

A new survey of US manufacturers by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows a radical shift in conceptions and use of 3D printing over the last two years. TechRepublic spoke with PwC about what the results mean.

With a predicted $16 billion jump in global spending in 3D printing from 2015 to 2019, according to IDC, it's no secret that manufacturers can no longer afford to ignore the potential for this new technology. And, according to a new report released by PwC, which surveyed 120 US manufacturers, we are at a moment of "exponential growth" in 3D printing.

TechRepublic spoke to PwC's US Industrial Products leader, Bob McCutcheon, to talk about what the results of the survey mean.

What was the biggest takeaway from the survey?

There's been a continued evolution of the use of the technology. At first, companies were beginning to experiment, but it was in R&D. Today, more companies are utilizing the technology in an actual production environment. The evolution of the understanding of the capabilities of the technology is significant.

Many companies saw 3D printing as a cost-savings supply chain opportunity—the ability to have flexibility in manufacturing closer to the customer and to use inventory on demand. Now companies are seeing the design possibilities. The ability to build and develop products that could not be developed in a subtractive manufacturing environment.

How has the technology itself changed in the last two years?

The quality and versatility of the technology continues to evolve. It allows companies to think about more advanced applications. There have been advances in the types of materials being used, and when that happens, along with printers becoming more advanced, the quality improves. When quality improves, there's more confidence in the product—then you can think about more advanced applications. Metals is a good example of the redesign opportunity. You can design very elaborate structures that can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to build in a subtractive environment. When confidence in 3D printing goes up, you can push the envelope more.

SEE: How GE is using 3D printing to unleash the biggest revolution in large-scale manufacturing in over a century (PDF download) (TechRepublic)

Has 3D printing become mainstream?

I think we're beginning to see exponential growth in 3D printing. It takes time for the technology to advance, and it takes time for early-adopters to have proven concepts. When we first started talking about this, not many were talking about it. Now, 3D printing is a daily topic of conversation in the manufacturing environment. It has become, conceptually, mainstream. The number of adopters in the survey show that most companies are planning to use this in some way.

Is large-scale 3D printing cost-effective?

Early-stage technology is too expensive to deploy for mass-production of commodity products. The greatest early opportunities are in specific design applications, highly-engineered, unique, customized, but lower volume. That's where the value is in the product. The number of printers one can acquire, because of the cost of the equipment, means there will be lower-volume, highly specialized design applications. But over time, the cost of the technology will come down considerably. Particularly as developers of the technology continue to cover their research and development cost and can produce the printers on a larger scale at a lower cost. In the future, the availability of more affordable technology will change that.

SEE: 3D printing: The trends that will change the game in 2016 (TechRepublic)

What will it take to be cost-effective?

Scale. Many of the companies that developed the technology early on were startups. They've grown their own capabilities. That will continue. But at the end of the day, it's the manufacturers of the technology who will need to have the scale and demand to leverage the initial investment they've made in the development of the technology. It takes time to build up scale. It's supply versus demand, you develop supply as it becomes mainstream and start to build up production capabilities. I think we're on the edge of that.

Do you see a 3D printer in every home? Or 3D printing centers, the way we have Kinko's?

This will be analogous to the PC. There will be large-scale commercial applications. But we're seeing smaller 3D printers for home use. The ability for the next generation to have access to the technology will drive a new wave to think about innovation and creativity. They'll have tools we never dreamed of.

SEE: Can 3D printing spark a green revolution in consumer products? (TechRepublic)

What's the most exciting thing about 3D printing for you?

The innovation coming out of the new design concepts. When I think about the applications for automotive, aerospace, the new design concepts that are possible, they will dramatically change the way products are being developed and will ultimately lead to significant advancements in both materials and manufactured products. In 20 years, we're going to point back to a catalyst event that dramatically changed the face of manufacturing, and we're going to point to 3D printing like we did with the computer age.

Most companies now understand, appreciate, and acknowledge that the future of manufacturing is 3D printing.

Also see...

A young boy watches as a 3D printer prints an object.
Image: iStockphoto.com/GregoryJohnston

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox