Will 3-D Printing Make Other Manufacturing Technologies Extinct?

In 1984, Charles Hull developed a technology to allow for stereolithography that later became the process of 3-D printing. By 2000, additive technology was being used to produce bio-organic structures, and by 2006, the technology became commonplace in mainstream manufacturing. A rapid drop in the price of the machines at the turn of the decade made 3-D printing accessible to the common entrepreneur. This has led to the fear that additive manufacturing will drive other manufacturing processes, and their associated companies, out of business.

Definition of Disruptive

Economist Clayton Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation to describe any technology that is so new that it creates its own market. The smartphone, personal computer and retail medical clinic are examples of disruptive innovations.

Detail of the Open Source 3D Printer

Detail of the Open Source 3D Printer

In every case, there is a disruptor and a disruptee. If 3-D printing is a disruptor, is traditional manufacturing the disruptee? Looking at the patterns of the past, the smartphone did not drive AT&T out of business and personal computers became part of IBM’s product line. Additive manufacturing as a disruptive innovation may not be set to destroy the manufacturing industry, but it will change the way the industry works.

Impacted Industries

The United States International Trade Commission published an article analyzing the implications of additive technology across industries. The most impacted industry is the consumer products and electronics sector. A little more than 20 percent of all addictive manufacturing is used for the creation or modification of consumer goods and electronics, such as cameras, video equipment and retail items. Following that are motor vehicles at 19.5 percent and medical at 15.1 percent. All three of these major sectors are thriving with 3-D printing.

Industries That Will Survive

Some companies will evolve with this technology and others will live in harmony with it. For example, Apple Rubber is a manufacturer of rubber o-rings and seals that provides its clients with specific designs but does not necessarily need to offer additive technology because it is not fiscally or operationally effective.

In cases where a prototype is useful, the professional expertise is just as important. For orders that are large, 3-D printing is not financially beneficial. Companies like Apple Rubber’s will most likely slowly incorporate the disruptive innovation into their traditional operations, but there is no fear the one will supplant the other. Likewise, emotionally charged products like film or photography will always have a place in the traditional manufacturing sectors.

Industries at Risk

Although there is not a direct rivalry between additive technology and traditional manufacturing, not every company is safe. Cellphones severely reduced the use of land lines and the health insurance market has affected the sole proprietor family doctor.

Additive manufacturing will probably impact small milling works and tooling manufacturers. These types of manual production of small batch parts will give way to the ease of do-it-yourself 3-D printing. Companies that cannot keep up or find themselves in direct competition with additive manufacturing will be relegated to their own small slice of the market share.