3-D printing has come a long way, but has a long way to go.


We talked with Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development for HP’s 3-D printing business unit. He has been with the unit since 2014 after several years working on mass customization solutions for high-volume printing manufacturing.


NextGen Supply Chain: Additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, has been around for more than 25 years now. Where would you say it is in its development today?

Schiller: At this point, 3-D printing is still early in its development. Market estimates put it at roughly a $5 billion a year technology. And that figure is for both the 3-D printers themselves and the materials consumed, both plastics and metals.

Additive manufacturing is used most extensively by the aerospace, automotive and health care industries. The first two have been a force in the technology since the early days. The medical industry really understands what’s possible with 3-D printing. And there are other markets such as consumer goods and heavy industry that will probably figure prominently in the near future.

NextGen Supply Chain: Twenty-five years is a long trajectory to get to early development stages for a technology. And we’ve all heard it will completely transform the supply chain. Is that a bit of overstatement at this point? 

Schiller: There’s no question 3-D will be part of the manufacturing mix going forward. But rather than replacing standard manufacturing, 3-D printing will supplement and transform traditional manufacturing processes. To achieve the digital transformation of manufacturing, there are a number of things that must happen first. A few levers required to open up the opportunity include, standards, software integration and price performance. They all need to be developed extensively for 3-D printing to be viable on a broader scale.

NextGen Supply Chain: Tell us more about those three.

Schiller: Let’s start with standards. Standards allow any technology to evolve in a focused way. Yes, there have been data file exchanges for 3-D files for some time. But what has existed is insufficient for the scale we’re talking about here.

To move that forward, HP has been involved in an industry consortium to further develop data file standards and sharing of them. Critical here is a standard data interchange format developed with the standards organization ASTM that allows interoperability for all interested in 3-D printing a particular part or component.

Software integration is important too. Siemens and HP have teamed up here to simplify the development and management of parts in a single software environment. This avoids costly and time-consuming data conversions to improve workflow efficiency.

Price performance is directly related to the development of new materials, both plastics and metals. Even now, the economics of 3-D materials have not supported low-cost part production at higher volumes. Looking at plastics in particular, 3-D printing needs to become a viable process alternative to injection molding at high production volumes, which is what we’re working towards.

NextGen Supply Chain: That sounds like a lot to overcome for additive manufacturing to be a player in manufacturing. Why is it all worth the effort?

Schiller: To begin, digitization is going on across the supply chain. Additive manufacturing is just another instance of this inexorable force.

There’s also no underestimating the value of 3-D printing’s ability to produce part geometries that can’t be manufactured with any other technology. That opens up all kinds of possibilities to solving application challenges that just can’t be addressed otherwise.

And finally, 3-D printing will help to balance out supply and demand. By being able to manufacture parts to tight tolerances in geometries not previously possible on demand, 3-D printing brings a new capacity to manufacturing in general. Again, 3-D will supplement and not replace traditional manufacturing. 

NextGen Supply Chain: You mentioned some leading markets. If you would expand on that a bit.

Schiller: The story is much the same for both automotive and aerospace. Additive manufacturing is all about producing high-performance, light-weight parts. That’s always been the case. So far, this has been pretty much a metals story. But new development in plastics will push the envelope even more.

Medical parts is where a lot of the action is today. From hearing aids to teeth braces and even eyeglasses, 3-D printing presents a strong value proposition. One thing many people don’t know is that 90% of the world’s custom hearing aids are 3D printed. Align Technologies, makers of Invisalign are the largest 3D printing users.

There’s a reason for this. Medical parts have long been a world where the standard part is roughly right sized. Additive manufacturing changes that to a world where the product is exactly right sized. That’s a big difference and 3-D makes it possible. 

Two future markets to watch are consumer goods and heavy industry.

In the former, 3-D plastic parts requiring short, fast product development will dominate. Product differentiation will be part of what makes 3-D so valuable here. And I’m not talking about 3-D printers at home here. The value will be in the use of 3-D by established consumer goods companies.

Many are already working on 3-D printing of spare parts for heavy industry. These are products that tend to have a long life but are critical when they need to be replaced. The idea is to shorten up the supply chain. Military parts will figure here too.

NextGen Supply Chain: How do you envision 3-D printing changing the supply chain in the next few years.

Schiller: Beyond supplementing traditional manufacturing, 3-D will open the door to parts that could not be made any other way. Just as important, additive manufacturing is another element in the shift to digitization of the supply chain.

The technology will also make it possible to better match supply and demand as it shortens the time to market. The end result will be more rapid innovation and market testing of a range of products.  Speeding innovation and testing cycles is another 3-D printing value proposition that will enable strong growth in coming years.

Gary Forger is contributing editor of NextGen Supply Chain. He can be reached at grforger@gmail.com.