3-D printing and the ‘flattening’ of manufacturing

April 14, 2016



Without 3-D printing, a some innovative companies could never have entered manufacturing—or helped spur industry growth.

For manufacturers, 3-D printing, in just a few years, has evolved from novelty to more mainstream. Global spending on industrial and desktop 3-D printers is now about $11 billion, and that could more than double over the next three years. Faster, less expensive, and more advanced printers are entering the market in the same way their ancient forebears – paper laser printers – first wowed us, then became a must-have in every office. Then there are the mind-boggling applications we read about daily – a bridge 3-D-printed by a robot, printed food, jet engine parts, or human tissue (and don’t forget the 3-D-printed 3-D printers).

PwC has been tracking the technology’s evolution – as it relates to manufacturers – and we were somewhat surprised by how much more the technology is being adopted over such a short period of time. A couple years ago, we surveyed US manufacturers and found that 67% of them were using 3-D printing in some way (from prototyping to final production fabrication, to experimenting). A new, updated survey finds that number has now lifted to 72%. And about half of the manufacturers surveyed are using 3-D printing for both prototyping and final products, up from 35% two years ago. Another revealing finding: 3-D printing may not only be the answer to highly specialized, low-number lot production. It may also be on the cusp of competing with conventional manufacturing. Indeed, more manufacturers (52%) expect 3-D printing to be used for high-volume production in the next 3 to 5 years, compared to two years ago (38%). For these and other findings, check out the report, 3D Printing comes of age in US industrial manufacturing.

Our study lifts a veil on how, and to what extent, manufacturers are applying the technology. And that’s important. But what it doesn’t show is how 3-D printing is bringing manufacturing to those who might never have dreamed, say, a decade ago that they could design and manufacture a product. 3-D printing is one of a portfolio of technological enablers impacting our industry. In this, way, advanced technologies such as 3-D printing are “flattening” manufacturing.

The building interest in 3-D printing both inside and outside factory floors comes at a pivotal moment for US manufacturing. At a time when the national conversation over US manufacturing jobs has reached a high pitch, we’re seeing a technology enable a generation to take part in the industry. 3-D printing’s greater effect on manufacturing goes well beyond making stuff more efficiently and less expensively. Along with other technologies that are drawing new talent and interest into industrial design and production (robotics, drones, Internet of Things apps, etc.), 3-D printing is helping to revive, transform–and flatten–the industry.



Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email