Renaissance in 3D Printing: Time to prepare for the global logistics overhaul they warned us about

When did 3d printing shift from exciting revolutionary technology to just a buzzword? The technology that everyone was sure would be transformational in 2012 has been a disappointment ever since. That’s not to say the trinkets we have seen printed haven’t been cool; they just haven’t revolutionized anything…yet.

But, and we know this sounds naive, “yet” is a pretty profound word in this context. And we can be fairly certain that new developments of 3d printing have broken down the most significant barriers that have historically stood between this exciting technology and its massive potential to transform the global supply chain.

The answer, in large part, has been Artificial Intelligence.

A 3D Printing Barrier in 2015 Is an Opportunity in 2018. How?

Despite some advancements in consumer applications, experts had relegated 3d printing technology to a niche advancement back in 2015, something that was exciting, maybe, for if you wanted to customize your shoes, or print out a plastic 3d rendering of you and your betrothed and then put this on top of your wedding cake. Honestly, this is what Matthias Holweg wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2016 in his article: The Limits of 3D Printing.

Holweg was completely correct at that time in his calculation that 3d printing was simply not worth it for most applications on Earth. It wasn’t worth it because in order to prepare a CAD file for printing, a professional with substantial expertise would need to work that machine into a printable format. This was highly specialized, time-intensive work, and the cost was enormous, particularly for machine parts and the vast majority of manufactured goods.

But this barrier was just broken, and not just broken like in the snipping of red tape sense, but broken in the way that the sound barrier was broken, enabling planes to double, triple, and quadruple the speed of sound shortly thereafter.

Artificial Intelligence Converts Real-World Objects into 3d-Printable Specifications Quickly and Cheaply

We are writing about this because of an article published by the World Economic Forum, which describes a new generation of 3D printers, which apply artificial intelligence to bridge the gap between our real-world specifications and a 3D-printable machine that will match those specifications to a “T.” This application of artificial intelligence accomplishes three big wins, which will have global logistical implications.

Generative Design

The first of these, we have already discussed: automation of the conversion from specification to 3D-printable format. This one phase accounts for literally 57% of all 3D printing work done (Forbes, The State of 3D Printing, 2017).

Generative design allows an engineer to deliver high-level requirements to an AI-driven cluster, which then designs a printable model within a multi-physics context until a viable model is constructed.

Initial attempts to use this technology have not only resulted in automating the gap between spec and printable model. AI driven modeling has resulted in optimized parts, which are often 50% lighter than traditionally manufactured counterparts, all without sacrificing performance. Due to incredible complexity in shape, which only a machine would be able to design, these objects are the next generation of performance.

Implications for the Supply Chain

As it turns out, what we were so excited about back in 2012 was an order of magnitude poorer than what there is to be excited about today. This innovation works in three ways to increase the efficacy of a 3D Printed world over.

First, AI-designed tools are often 50% lighter, which means reduced transportation costs for 3D-printed goods.

Second, the current supply chain is spread out among vast distances and typically involves many different steps between metallurgy and final product. One factory will produce widgets. Another will put five widgets together with a whatsit. And then a third, fourth and fifth, and sixth will gradually pull these low-level parts together into, say, a car. 3D printed goods consolidate many different steps into one, avoiding all the transportation and complexity of the industrial supply chain. The value is immense. The implications are huge.

Between 2010 and 2015, the 3D printing market grew from 1 to $5 Billion, but growth slowed considerably in the last two years. The latest Markets and Markets forecast projects a resurgence to 25.76% CAGR between 2017 and 2023, when it estimates a market worth $32.78 Billion, roughly 500% growth over 6 years.

Still, if you own a logistics business, this scenario probably won’t dent your business until later in the decade. But, this time, transformation might actually happen.