3D printing has been around for a while, at least conceptually. Invented in 1980 by Chuck Hull, it is a manufacturing process, sometimes referred to as “additive manufacturing,” whereby layers of material (e.g., plastics, concrete, synthetic resins, metal, etc.) are built up, layer-by-layer, using a computer to drive the machinery. In comparison to traditional manufacturing, additive manufacturing is faster, less expensive, and produces less waste. With recent leaps in AI and machine learning, how we design concepts for printing are also resulting in products that are lighter, stronger, and more efficient. Finally, and probably the most potential to impact maritime, 3D printing allows for individual, on-demand production of highly unique goods.
Pair the benefits with the considerable hype that exists around 3D printing, and it begs the question – is 3D printing all hype or a new business model for maritime? At INFORM, we recently wrote that we believe 3D printing is an emerging business model for ports and terminals to consider. You can read more on these new business models in our Port Technology technical paper, which explores 3D printing, SaaS, and Big data-Based Decision-Making, to name a few. This article gives you more insight into how we arrived at that conclusion so you can judge for yourself.
Is 3D Printing Just Hype?
To answer the question of whether 3D printing is hype or a new business model, we started with the trusted Gartner “hype curve.” The first thing to note is that 3D printing, as a technological concept, is no longer on Gartner’s general hype curve. The last year it appeared on their general curve was in 2015.
Digging a bit deeper into 3D printing specifically, the most recent curve from 2018 shows many of the supporting technologies (e.g., software, scanners, printers, etc.) progressing nicely up the “slope of enlightenment.” This helps to explain why, following closely behind, working their way down from “peak hype,” are many application areas such as 3D printing in healthcare, aerospace, defense, manufacturing, supply chain, and still close to peak-hype 3D printing in retail. It is our belief that it is these last two that will have the most significant impact on the maritime industry.
For those wanting to cut to the chase, the following two paragraphs give you a quick summary of 3D printing in supply chain and retail. For those who want to understand the details, there are links at the end of each paragraph to separate posts that explore each in greater detail with some great use case examples.
3D Printing in Supply Chain
Digging into the uses of 3D printing in the maritime supply chain, we found that almost all of the use cases are focused on the production of spare parts with some smaller exceptions around rapid prototyping of equipment and some manufacturing-side 3D printing. In short, while 3D printing in the supply chain area is further along than retail, the applications within maritime specifically are still quite limited.
3D Printing in Retail
While still at peak hype, 3D printing in retail has shown real signs of progress over the past five years with major brands like IKEA, Nike, and Lowe’s investing in 3D printing initiatives for 3D printing-based manufacturing and print-in-shop. With innovative startups like the Ministry of Supply and Bits and Parts making 3D printing available direct to consumers in-shop and at home, the future of 3D printing in retail is likely to progress quickly, given the cost of the technology is decreasing allowing the advantages to be realized by many more year-on-year.
As 3D printing becomes an ever more-viable reality for businesses, ports and terminals can use this technology to reimagine their business models wholesale. After all, if cargo can be printed at the destination, this will significantly reduce the need for the plethora of long and environmentally damaging voyages containerships take on a daily basis.
Such a model offers a much faster way to deliver goods, a far more environmentally friendly option than traditional shipping, customized production opportunities, and much lower transport costs. However, it’s not all positive. 3D printing is still very expensive and would require extensive usage of raw materials. Incidentally, this would likely see the bulk trade boom and the container trade wane, but that’s a discussion for another post.
What do you think the future of 3D printing is in maritime?