3D Printing and You

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You may be sick of hearing about technological “disruptions.” The coverage can sound like a paperboy selling ten-year-old headlines, and the forecasts can sound like shots in the dark. (Informed and accurate forecasts, of course, make no public sound at all.) It’s almost a Yogi Berra-ism that the real disruptions are the ones no one saw coming.

That said, you may want to make an exception for talk of 3D printing. It’s an old concept, but its disruptive potential is approaching a pivot point, and some high-performance models are poised to become standard household amenities. Whether 3D printing will really spark a new industrial revolution, reverse the tide of globalization, or pave the way for anarchy are open questions. That it will render many forms of manufacturing obsolete is barely in question. The real questions are “Which ones?” and “How should manufacturing, logistics, and service professionals adapt?”

Some might opt for denial. “Determined and clever individuals have been mass producing stuff for more than a century. 3D printing is just one extra tool.” Not exactly. With 3D printing, tricky and labor-intensive manufacturing processes become brainless and hands-off. The user doesn’t have to be determined or clever, and that could mean a lot of new users. Neither does the user have to care about producing just one item en masse. On a whim, they can make anything their printer permits – en masse, or just once. Traditional manufacturing is a Gutenberg press; 3D printing is an inkjet printer spitting out ebooks from “Project Gutenberg.” Denying this qualitative difference, where it applies, could have truly disastrous consequences.

This doesn’t mean that the future is altogether bleak for affected industries. “Subtractive” techniques, which carve and stamp new shapes from bulk material, often yield superior results, and the repertoire of printable materials is limited. Technical barriers on either front could relegate 3D printing to niche applications. Even in domains where 3D printing replaces traditional manufacturing, corporations could continue to turn a profit by selling and regulating blueprints – summoning intellectual property laws and adhering to the model of ebooks and online journals.

For service and logistics professionals, the future is even less predictable. Consumers who can make their own spare parts would presumably have less use for aftermarket service, and might forego troubleshooting and up-front screening for fully printable goods. But the challenges of production, assembly, and maintenance might demand a range of new services, and could transform the scope and toolkit of  screening, testing, and repair of returned goods, to say nothing of service and support for the printers themselves.

The effects of a 3D printing disruption will likely be unique to each affected industry – and unpredictable in all. As we’ve already suggested, game-changing events are more easily prepared for as a whole. Few important market disruptions can be planned for years in advance, but experience with the general phenomenon of disruption can help us respond adroitly to new ones. At Blumberg Advisory Group, our job is to bring our experience to bear on your aftermarket service and reverse logistics challenges – including those posed by 3D printing. Schedule a consultation today to see how we can add depth to your service supply chain strategy.

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