Have you ever heard someone say that innovation can be disruptive? Disruptive innovation means that a new product or service creates a new market while also replacing or competing with existing markets. By now, you’ve probably heard about 3-D printing—also known as “additive manufacturing”—a current technology that has the potential to be disruptive.
3-D printers build parts in layers by depositing raw materials, including metals, plastics, and even biocompatible materials, onto a substrate or frame. This process can create simple shapes as well as increasingly more complex objects. The medical community has even used a dissolvable 3-D printed part to save an infant’s life from a congenital disease. In the world of advanced manufacturing, 3-D printing eliminates production steps by rapidly producing prototype parts without the need for additional tooling or machining, the time-consuming steps needed to transition to mass production. Aside from creating parts for the purposes of prototyping, this process can make a part on the production floor that can be shipped straight to the customer.
Though 3-D printing technology has actually been around for 30 years, it is just now becoming a disruptive innovation. The massive drop in the cost of 3-D printers is making the technology more affordable for manufacturers who can now better justify the cost of a 3-D printer if it has the potential to benefit their operation. Manufacturers have already proven that they can use the technology to create things like art, sports equipment, musical instruments, bicycles, and even those elusive plastic clips used to close your bag of bagels. The cost and the precision of the technology are becoming increasingly favorable every year, and it’s only a matter of time before these 3-D printers can compete with all the other manufacturing technologies that preceded them.
Now it’s time to get more excited: Personal. 3-D. Printers. Within just the past few years, the technology has been scaled down to a portable size, and the prospect of owning a printer is getting a lot of attention, though their price tag is still a few thousand dollars. Once the cost of these printers is further reduced, with 3-D printing capabilities, you could print a pipe joint to fix the leaky sink, replace the lens cap on your camera, or make a new case for your cell phone—all from the comfort of your own home. This growing trend of using personal 3-D printers points to the broader “Maker Movement” in which an increasing number of individuals are using do-it-yourself techniques and processes to create innovative products to market out of their own homes.
Whether you’re a manufacturer out to make a living or an average person that finds everyday uses for printed objects, there’s no doubt that 3-D printing will continue to be a disruptive innovation. This technology combines creativity and functionality in ways we have yet to fully acknowledge.