A French cosmetics giant uses one to create artificial skin. A Wisconsin start-up designs ceramic guides that pinpoint tumors in individual cancer patients. Workers on a remote North Sea oil rig make replacement parts on the spot rather than wait days for a ship or helicopter to arrive.
All these actions are made possible by one technology: 3-D printing. Developed in the 1980s, 3-D printers create three-dimensional objects by laying down successive layers of material, a process called additive manufacturing. The technology has evolved to work with different types of substances: plastics, metals and now biological materials.
Management consulting firm A.T. Kearney describes 3-D printing as a technology that is disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing industry. "3-D printing, or additive manufacturing — will push the production of goods closer to the consumer, democratizing manufacturing on a global scale and allowing products to be cost-effectively customized to consumers' needs," said the firm in a report that described the U.S. as the world leader but with Germany, South Korea and Italy among the countries working hard to catch up.
The adoption is gradual. "3-D printing is having the largest impact on industries which manufacture low-volume, high-value parts which may benefit from mass customization," said Dr. Bryony Core, senior technology analyst at IDTechEx, an independent analyst firm based in Cambridgeshire, England.
The aerospace and medical industries have been the most enthusiastic adopters, she says, but the list of industries embracing the technology is expanding. They include Boeing and Airbus, Ford and other automakers, consumer electronics manufacturers like Foxconn and brewers like Heineken. IDTech Ex estimates the market for 3-D printing should grow at a brisk 13% rate from $9.87 billion now to $31 billion by 2029.
The capacity to create 3-D objects immediately is changing manufacturing, said Jos Burger, CEO of Ultimaker, a maker of industrial 3-D printers based in the Netherlands. Customers can go to a dashboard, select a component and send G code (which translates the product specs to a code the printer understands). "The G code is traveling, not an object," said Burger. "That is a revolution growing incredibly fast."
French cosmetics maker L'Oreal has been using 3-D technology for more than 20 years, said Anne Debauge, digital director of the packaging and development department. The printers are deployed in 21 of the company's 40 plants worldwide. The availability of 3-D printers in company plants enhances the role of employees, said Debauge. "They become actors rather than coordinators."
The company's original use of the printers was to develop prototypes of bottles and packages for its beauty products, but their use has evolved. L'Oreal is now exploring another capability of 3-D printers: bioprinting. By building layers of living cells, 3-D printers can create human skin.
"Thanks to cutting-edge technological tools, we can print living cells and implant them into other living material," said Jérémie Soeur, head of L'Oreal's cellular and tissue engineering group, in an interview posted on the company's website. The 3-D-printed skin could be used to test products and reduce the controversial use of live animals, for example. (L'Oreal points out it stopped animal testing in 1989).
Soeur imagined a time when dermatologists could store samples of patient cells and print them directly onto patients after a severe wound or burn. In the long term, scientists believe they will be able to print entire organs from a patient's own cells, reducing the need for donors and the possibility of rejection that now occurs with transplants.
There are two key obstacles to faster growth of the 3-D printer market, says Maikel van Verseveld, global production and operations lead at Accenture's Industry X.O, which focuses on marrying smart technologies to traditional industries. "The majority of our clients are still hesitating," he says. One concern is the disparity in scale between suppliers and customers. Many manufacturers of 3-D printers are small start-ups, while users are often large corporations. "Elephants in the enterprise want to do business with elephants," he said.
However, two giants, Siemens and HP, have joined forces to encourage big companies to adopt 3-D printing. In March the two companies announced an alliance that would make Siemens manufacturing software and HP's latest industrial 3-D printers work smoothly together. "We are proud to partner with Siemens to make high-performance parts, personalized products and serialized 3-D production a reality for our customers," said Christoph Schell, HP's president of 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing, in a press release.
The other big concern is the management of intellectual property rights. A customer may be able to get the specs to create a replacement part, but how will the original manufacturer be compensated? "How do I assure I will get the original design?" explained van Verseveld. He envisions an online marketplace that makes component designs available and handles the financial transaction between the parties.
When 3-D printing first burst onto the scene, popular scenarios envisioned a 3-D printer in every garage. But the consumer market never met expectations, because of the limited capability of affordable home printers, said Dror Danai, the chief business officer at XJet, an Israeli manufacturer of 3-D printers.
However, he sees many applications of 3-D printers that will benefit consumers. One example is the creation of more precise crowns and dentures by dentists. Another is the ability to make individualized medical devices for patients. His company is working with a start-up in Wisconsin that uses 3-D printers to create customized ceramic guides to precisely freeze breast tumors identified by MRI machines.
"[3-D printing] works best when parts are impossible to make in a traditional way," Danai said.