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Getting Past the Hype About 3-D Printing

Although additive manufacturing — also known as 3-D printing — was developed back in the 1980s, lately it has become increasingly talked about as managers look for ways to improve efficiency and reduce production costs. The appeal of additive manufacturing is its potential to reduce the need for expensive materials and energy, cut lead times, and make supply chains more efficient.

Despite the promise of additive manufacturing, the authors argue, near-term expectations are overblown. Based on dozens of interviews, study of the literature on the history of materials and process technologies, industry meetings, and factory visits, they have identified three myths that need to be dispelled. The first myth is that additive manufacturing will allow producers to make parts of any complexity as easily and economically as parts that are manufactured in traditional ways (in other words, that it will make complexity “free”). The second myth is that additive manufacturing will prod manufacturing to become local. And the third myth is that additive manufacturing will allow producers to replace mass manufacturing with mass customization. In the authors’ view, none of these expectations is likely to be realized in the next few decades.

Although the authors say that additive manufacturing will make it easier to design lighter parts with complex geometries and internal cavities, they point to important drawbacks and restrictions. Knowing the parameters of what’s possible to produce requires skills that are currently scarce. There are also safety and technical issues. Some of the safety concerns stem from the fact that the technology is new.

Although many people are looking for additive manufacturing to bring manufacturing closer to markets and consumers, the authors believe that this scenario has been exaggerated, largely due to economies of scale. Despite expectations that additive manufacturing will bring a decisive shift from mass manufacturing to mass customization, the likelihood that change will occur quickly is slim, the authors say. What’s more, they raise questions about how flexible additive manufacturing will be. In theory, a good 3-D printer should be capable of printing a wide range of designs. In practice, though, there may be regulations (particularly in safety-critical applications) about how equipment can be configured.

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