A few short years ago, 3D printing was a novelty. Today, it’s a major driver in business process transformation and the digital economy.

Already nearly every industry is finding unique ways to use 3D printing to reduce inventory, save money, and increase time to market. 3D printing also easily relates to innovative industry trends like robotics, digital logistics, rapid prototyping, digital spare parts management, and others. According to a study from Fredonia Group called “World 3D Printing,” the world demand for 3D printers and related materials and software is projected to rise 21 percent per year, to $5 billion in 2017.

Here are some real-world examples:

Discrete industries

With 3D printing, the airline simply prints the required spare part on site rather than flying it in from centralized spare parts depots. As a result, the airline reduces investment in inventory and increases the utilization of its planes. Moreover, focus is on “light parts” in support of the goal to globally reduce CO2 emissions. Recently announced at the annual Farnborough International Airshow, APWorks, an Airbus subsidiary, will make use of SAP’s 3D printing services to operate a “bionics network” that is planned to bring together 3D printing experts and end users. Companies like Airbus are targeting the entire value chain for 3D printing, from planning and design over rapid prototyping to after-sales services.

The automotive and industrial machinery and construction industries also use 3D printing to rapidly create prototypes or machine parts and to create spare parts. Ferrari, for example, uses 3D-printed models in original size for wind tunnel testing as well as racing car component manufacturing. Rapid prototyping generally helps reduce the cost and the time to market for new equipment and machinery. Once the new models are ready for production, 3D printing farms churn out components and spare parts, enabling simpler integration of design changes and enabling customized options without increasing inventory.

Consumer products

Custom-crafted desserts, fanciful shaped pancakes, noodles, cheeseburgers, New York-style pizza—the list of 3D printed foods is growing each day. As interesting as 3D printing foods sound, food isn’t the only consumer product that’s coming from printing farms. Toys, shoes, and household products are also part of the 3D printing revolution. Consumers want customized products, and creating them on a 3D printer is fast and economical.

Building and construction

People tend to think of 3D printing for small,or at most, medium-sized items, but in China, The Netherlands, and the U.S., building innovators have already created 3D printers capable of printing an entire house quickly and cost-effectively. These are full-sized houses, comprising up to 2,500 square feet, printed using concrete, specialized plastics, and metal.

Process industries

Industries like utilities, oil & gas, chemicals, and mills & mining are also looking closely at the innovative potential of 3D printing. Imagine having assets like pipelines, oil rigs, or mining vehicles operating in remote and hard-to-access areas that must be inspected and maintained on a regular basis to ensure safe, smooth operations. You could, for example, leverage drones to inspect such assets and determine maintenance needs and have spare parts 3D printed locally on demand to make repairs. This would help reduce downtime without increasing MRO inventory.

The chemical industry also has the unique opportunity to drive 3D printing adoption through development of innovative plastics, metal powders, ceramic materials, and proprietary formulations that feed 3D printers. Covestro, for example, currently develops a portfolio of powders and resins for all established 3D printing processes.

Life sciences

Healthcare workers and surgeons can print artificial joints custom fitted to a patient’s exact specifications. Dental crowns can now be printed while you wait, with no messy measuring and fitting. Custom medications, printed on demand, help doctors regulate dosages more accurately. Artificial skin is printed for use in grafts or to protect burn victims. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s the reality of the digital transformation that 3D printing is driving.

Conclusion

3D printing is a rapidly growing business that affects almost every industry and has the potential to redesign entire value chains. Large, expensive global or regional production plants could be supplemented or even replaced with small, highly flexible 3D printing farms serving local needs on demand, hence becoming a key driver of the digital economy. This would significantly reduce inventory as well as transportation costs.

Moreover, ownership of the digital files that drive the 3D printers will become a critical success factor and key differentiator in the market. Today, ownership of the digital file to drive the 3D printer is as valuable as the printer itself. SAP, Stratasys, and UPS have already started to collaborate on building 3D printing farms along with standards to exchange design docs, formats, and certificates.

For more insight on the impact of digital innovation on the future of business, see Supply Chain Futurists Predict The Impact Of Digital Transformation.

Learn more about SAP’s approach and offerings around 3D Printing and share your thoughts and ideas with us!

This blog was originally posted on “Digitalist” on Nov 7.

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