The business world sometimes likes to use the “1 + 1 = 3” for mergers and acquisitions where businesses seek to leverage the strengths of two complementary businesses. What is frequently missing in the current discussion about 3D printing is metaphorically the same thing; the ability of 3D to integrate shapes that were previously made as discrete components.
There continues to be a lot of media buzz around 3D printing, and justifiably so. On the one hand, much of the commentary is from sources that have a superficial understanding of the technology. Those following the technology more closely are aware of the limitations and some of the research going on that is expanding the envelope. In some cases the envelope has expanded literally speaking if you have seen the recent project at Oak Ridge National Labs to do large scale printing in conjunction with Local Motors which is printing the frame and tub an entire car as one component.
The ability to consolidate multiple parts and functionality into a single part of higher complexity not an easy thing to quantify. The actual cost benefit of any given instance of this consolidation is case specific and very difficult to calculate.
The real point here is that design has been 3D for many years. Manufacturing has not. The real value in 3D printing is not in making a comparison with traditional high speed processes. Print speed is not the issue, print speed is only a part of the value chain. If a car chassis can be printed in 50 hours that replaces hundreds of other parts, you have to evaluate the 3D approach in terms of all the hours and processes required by the component approach.
The real implications of 3D manufacturing is the ability to finally build it the way we can imagine it. How products have been manufactured over the last hundred years has been entirely constrained by very limited means available in cast and machined parts.
3D technologies make possible highly integrated parts that embody the value that 1 + 1 = 3. When you can manufacture 1 part that takes the place of 2 or 3 others, the value of the integration is incredible.
When you stop and think about it, there is almost no single product we currently make that won’t be impacted, re-engineered or re-imagined in some way. Some younger innovators, having never experienced the limitations of conventional processes, are producing products that have never existed before.
It’s a great time to manufacture something. New.