Forget the hype. This is how 3D printing will really be used

Early adopters envisioned a printer on every kitchen counter, but the reality will be customizing mass-produced goods

A technician checking a 3D printer setup

A technician checking a 3D printer setup. (Oli Scarff/Getty)

Despite all the hype around personal desktop 3D printers, consumers never warmed to the idea of machines only really useful for making toys—most kids already have more than enough plastic figurines lying around for their parents to step on.

Rather than fuelling a movement of makers and tinkerers, the technology will have its biggest impact in enterprise manufacturing. But don’t look for assembly lines to be replaced by building-sized 3D printers that spit out finished products any time soon. Instead, the technology will enable two value-creating steps in the manufacturing process: rapid prototyping and mass-customization.

“Over the last couple of years [3D printing has] gone through this massive hype cycle where it’s going to print you a cup and fill it with coffee,” observes Ben Wynne, chief Technology Officer at Vancouver-based Wiivv Wearables. Wynne has been working with the technology for over a decade, including a stint leading a skunkworks engineering team at HP.

Consumer demand for personalized products is growing according to Wiivv, which plans to 3D print its “body-perfect” gear, starting with the Base insoles it’s currently pre-selling via Kickstarter. The company’s “adaptive manufacturing system” turns scans into printable files in short order, enabling it to theoretically produce everything from snugger earbuds to palm-fitting golf club handles.

3D printing makes it possible to produce geometries that can’t be machined or moulded, and to create blended materials. (Imagine “a solid bar, where one end is plastic and it goes to rubber on the other end, but in the same way that a rainbow goes from red to violet,” suggests Wynne). But it won’t completely replace the factory manufacturing process. “When you’re building end-user products, you still have a component that involves assembly and completion,” notes Shamil Hargovan, Wiivv’s co-founder and CEO, who met Wynne while working at HP.

Instead of end-to-end manufacturing, 3D printing could be used to produce personalized parts that go into a finished consumer product. Among the investors that contributed to Wiivv’s $3.5 million seed round in December was MAS Holdings, a Sri Lankan company that is one of the largest manufacturers of apparel and footwear for brands like Nike, Victoria Secret and Lululemon. Other assembly line operators could similarly team up with customization-enablers to bring personalization to their product lines. “If I want a pair of dress shoes, I’m going to get them made in leather,” says Wynne. “The part that makes it custom could just be a 3D-printed plastic part that’s folded into the conventional manufacturing process.”

The end-to-end manufacturing hype ignores 3D printing’s cost and speed limitations says Duncan Stewart, Head of Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Research at Deloitte Canada, and author of the consulting firm’s much-cited annual TMT Predictions report. “We’ve really got to calm down on the idea that 3D printing is going to be a major thing in final-part manufacture for any industry at scale,” he says. “3D printers are slow, expensive, and almost always require extensive after-printing post-processing.”

Rapid prototyping is a more practical use for the technology, and manufacturers seem to agree—Stewart says it’s what 80–90% of 3D printers are used for today. He uses the analogy of jewelry: Historically, large jewellers were able to offer customers rings, say, in hundreds of different designs in various sizes because they owned thousand of moulds. Smaller competitors couldn’t afford to maintain an inventory of that size. “You can now print out a mould in the exact right size, do a prototype, have the customer sign off, then produce the ring through traditional gold manufacturing using the mould,” says Stewart. It’s not about changing the market, so much as levelling the playing field between big and small players.

In terms of prototyping, 3D printing is transformative says Stewart. “It dramatically reduces costs and accelerates time to market, both of which are worth in aggregate tens of billions of dollars around the world.” Major manufacturers in say the automobile industry may set up labs filled with 3D printers, smaller business may only need a single machine, or access to one through a service bureau.

And while the 3D printer-in-every-garage vision some futurists have been touting may never materialize, enterprise manufacturing may lead to a different kind of ubiquity. While Wiivv is vertically integrated at the moment, it envisions a future of distributed manufacturing. “To scale, we need an order of magnitude more of access to [3D printers],” explains Wynne. “From a cost perspective it doesn’t make sense to invest in that amount of hardware.”

Instead, the company’s platform allows facilities with the right machines to sign on as manufacturing partners, who Wiivv can tap if it needs extra production capacity. “We’ve always described our manufacturing and R&D facility in San Diego as our Ocean’s Eleven vault, where we build it once and others can replicate it,” jokes Hargovan.

So don’t shut down your factories just yet. “To a very large extent, 3D printers are additive—pun intended—to existing supply chains rather than substitutive,” says Stewart. “They aren’t competing, they are complementing.”