Five ways 3-D printing is changing manufacturing

April 30, 2017



As 3-D printing emerges from prototyping to assume a role in mass manufacturing and production, the industry must adapt.

Today only 0.01% of all manufacturing output is 3-D printed. Instead, the technology is predominantly used to produce prototypes, which enables companies to transform and tweak product models much more easily and cost-effectively than by using traditional manufacturing methods.

But 3-D printing is beginning to make small yet significant inroads that are taking it beyond prototyping and onto the manufacturing floor and production process. The industries making this happen are diverse. For example, aircraft manufacturer Airbus is using 3-D-printed parts in its aircraft, and a full 98% of hearing aids produced worldwide are now made using 3-D printers, custom-crafted for each user’s unique ear shape. Multiple companies host websites in which children can custom-make toys that are 3-D printed and shipped to their doors. These uses of 3-D printing have boosted the market’s value to nearly $9 billion this year. Analysts predict that value to rise to $30 billion by 2022.

For that to happen, though, users of 3-D printing will have to overcome current barriers to using additive manufacturing to produce finished parts. That may prove difficult, given some of the problems associated with current 3-D printing technology, such as print consistency, reliability of material and build properties, limited choice of materials, expensive raw materials, and others.

But there are also solid advantages to 3-D printing: design freedom, no need for tooling, lighter parts, manufacturing footprint flexibility, and simplified assembly–all leading to a growing demand for its use in production in some industries. As 3-D printing becomes more practical for more industries, manufacturing production will fundamentally change. There are five notable transformations you may expect as 3-D printing begins to become a more popular manufacturing model:

1. Enable a continuous digital thread from design to production

“When you use 3-D printing for production, you maintain a continuous digital thread,” explains Dr. Joe DeSimone, CEO of the 3-D printer and manufacturing company Carbon. That is, all processes from design to production are driven by a single digital design that is refined over time based on analysis, feedback, and testing. As a result, the production process is greatly simplified (see figure below). “Using 3-D printing for production will be transformative,” predicts DeSimone. “It speeds up product design, and it speeds up business.”

In traditional manufacturing, the journey from design to production moves through various distinct stages. At each stage, the digital thread is cut as a physical manifestation of the design is created to test and validate it. Even when 3-D printing is used to create a prototype, this breaks the digital thread, since the prototype is often not made with the same materials or imbued with the same performance capacities that the final product will have.

With 3-D manufacturing, prototyping as it is now known will cease to exist. “When you design a product on the same means used for production, there is no prototype,” explains Valerie Buckingham, VP of marketing at Carbon. “There’s just an iteration with no cost to change it. The leaders in the manufacturing space are figuring this out. They’re iterating on the means of production, creating a manufacturing process in which the digital loop is not cut.”

Keeping the digital thread intact throughout design and production will drive the integration of otherwise separate solutions. For example, Materialise—a 3-D printing manufacturing service headquartered in Belgium—is collaborating with Siemens to integrate Materialise’s know-how into “NX” (Siemen’s product lifecycle management solution). “This means that people who are working with NX can generate supports and take other actions to prepare their designs for printing from within the design solutions they already use,” says Bart Van der Schueren, CTO of Materialise.

“Using 3-D printing for production will be transformative,” predicts DeSimone. “It speeds up product design, and it speeds up business.”

2. Offer greater design freedom and spur innovation

Designs developed for conventional manufacturing have traditionally been constrained by manufacturing processes that require the creation of separate components that are assembled to create the end product. This is one reason why many products are the results of components that are manufactured separately and assembled afterward.

3-D printing has the potential to remove many of the constraints of the traditional manufacturing process. 3-D printers can create complex and intricate geometries as easily as they can print a solid cube. With 3-D printing, there is no additional cost to creating a complex design.

Unshackled by traditional manufacturing constraints, designers will be freer to create geometries that better achieve their desired performance and meet customer needs. GE used this design freedom to redesign the LEAP jet engine nozzle from 18 separate components to a single part, which also decreased the product’s weight and increased its performance with complex internal pathways.

In another example, Bart Van der Schueren describes how Materialise came up with an alternative for titanium skull plates implanted in patients who have experienced head traumas. Because titanium is so conductive to heat, when it is used to make a skull plate it limits the ability of the recipient to walk in the sun or swim in a cold pool. “We designed a skull plate made of titanium, but because we can 3-D print it, we have been able to design heat textures into it. It prints these textures directly onto the plate,” explains Van der Schueren. “This makes the thermal performance of our titanium implant identical to the thermal performance of regular bone. Patients who have a Materialise skull implant can walk in the sun. They can take a shower or go swimming without suffering.”

The spare parts industry also stands to profit from 3-D manufacturing by gaining the ability to print parts on demand rather than storing and maintaining them in physical locations. Storing and shipping spare parts—for everything from consumer automobiles to industrial machines—is a costly and time-consuming prospect for parts suppliers and their customers. For rare parts that are requested infrequently, storing them often isn’t worth the effort, resulting in customers turning to third-party manufacturers.

In a 2015 PwC Strategy& survey of 38 major suppliers and buyers of spare parts in Germany, nearly a quarter of respondents said that more than 10% of the spare parts they keep in stock are obsolete or do not contribute to their margins. They indicated that being able to transition from physically storing parts to making them on demand could result in shorter lead times, less logistics planning, lower shipping costs (by producing parts closer to where they are needed), and a significant decrease in storage costs. The savings could be considerable. A Strategy& analysis estimates that suppliers could realize an average savings of 20% in total cost of ownership.

Manufacturers of consumer goods are also beginning to consider the possibilities of 3-D printing. Carbon has teamed with athletic shoe company adidas to offer a type of running shoe unprecedented in the lucrative athletic shoe market. The team has announced that this fall it will offer 5,000 pairs of 3-D manufactured shoes—dubbed Futurecraft 4D. But adidas clearly believes its new shoes will be a hit, as it has committed Carbon to producing 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft 4D athletic shoes in 2018.

There are a number of ways in which the manufacture of Futurecraft 4D shoes differentiate them from the few other 3-D printed shoes that have made tentative steps into the footwear marketplace. The first is Carbon’s unique production process. Unlike traditional 3-D printing, which creates objects by successively layering materials until a whole unit is produced, Carbon uses a method called digital light synthesis, that, rather than layering material from the top down, starts from the bottom, continuously forming an object with the use of digital light projection, oxygen-permeable optics, and programmable liquid resins to create durable polymeric products.

The first 5,000 pairs of adidas’ Futurecraft 4D running shoes will incorporate Carbon’s 3-D printed midsole, which features a durable latticed structure that is both strong and lightweight. The structure allows for customization by altering depth, width, and density. The first 5,000 pairs offered in the marketplace will be designed based on running data captured from numerous high-performing professional athletes.

Buckingham says Carbon’s technology has several differentiating benefits: “It produces objects incredibly fast, making them much more economical, creates monolithic and dense objects with no discernable layering, and offers clients the widest choice of production materials in the 3-D printing market.”

Buckingham adds that adidas has its eye on ultimately offering shoes that will accommodate the individual needs of specific customers. These customized shoes could involve consumers having multiple data points—such as height, weight, foot measurements, and gait—captured in a retail environment, or requiring consumers to enter their specific data online.

Buckingham says that adidas’ production order of 100,000 pairs of shoes represents the largest mass-produced 3-D printed product offered on the market. “Adidas is doing this at a traditional production level, which shows that 3-D is ready for prime time,” says Buckingham. “It’s proof that this technology is good enough and economical enough to go to production as an alternative to traditional manufacturing. There isn’t another technology out there that could accomplish this.”

“It produces objects incredibly fast and shortens the product development cycle, making items much more economical; it creates strong, durable parts and products with no discernable layering; and it offers clients the widest choice of production materials in the 3-D printing market.”

– Valerie Buckingham, Carbon

3. Give rise to manufacturing-as-a-service

Just as software-as-a-service has spawned many other “aaS” adjuncts, we will soon see the rise of manufacturing-as-a-service (MaaS), driven by 3-D printing. With MaaS, a company maintains an infrastructure that supports multiple clients that lease 3-D printing equipment owned by the company. As upgrades become available, companies deliver innovations incrementally over their networks, negating the need for clients to purchase upgraded equipment. This removes much of the risk of purchasing an expensive 3-D printer, making it easier for companies to get started with the technology without it quickly becoming obsolete.

In fact, every component of 3-D printing could soon be delivered this way. MaaS is a combination of printer-as-a-service (the ability to access printers and their capabilities), software-as-a-service (the capability to create printer-ready designs  and interact with real-time production operations), and material-as-a-service (the ability to add new material choices as well as inventories of powders, resins, and other materials monitored and delivered by the service provider). The end result for manufacturers will be faster upgrades and an improved ability to innovate with minimal downtime.

A variety of organizations, such as 3-D printer manufacturers Shapeways and Materialise, are pursuing this business model. Shapeways offers an API that hundreds of its customers tap into, letting them in turn offer bespoke designs to shoppers. “We just launched an effort with Disney in which you can visit and create your own version of R2-D2 or another Star Wars robot,” says Pieter Limburg, Shapeways’ head of Business Development and Sales,“That feeds directly into our API, and we print it and ship it.”

Many features that we have come to expect from cloud computing (which brings together Saas, platform-as-a-service, and infrastructure-as-a-service), such as multi-tenancy, elasticity of computing, networking and storage resources, usage-based business models, and automation of operations will likely find their equivalent in MaaS. With 3-D printing, manufacturing infrastructure too can be elastic, responsive to demands, and automatically redeployed quickly to other products.

4. Reduce waste and improve resource use

Traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods in which raw materials in the form of sheets, rods, beams, etc. have to be cut, milled, or drilled result in scrap that does not make it into the final product and is left on the manufacturing floor. This waste—a result of the nature of traditional manufacturing processes—is collected and subsequently recycled or destroyed. Over the years, efficiency practices and methods such as lean manufacturing have reduced such waste, and today the average waste from industrial operations globally is saturated at about 21% of the materials that enter a factory floor.

In contrast, additive manufacturing only uses the materials it needs to build products. The material that remains after a job is complete can be used in subsequent jobs. Theoretically, the 3-D printing process can produce zero waste. In practice, some material is wasted in constructing support structures, in post-production, or it is contaminated during the printing process. Nevertheless, the level of waste is substantially lower in 3-D printing and can reach levels below 10%.

As the rate of 3-D printing increases, the savings from reduced waste can add up to a significant decrease in resource consumption and result in substantial savings on a macroeconomic basis. PwC has developed economic models using real business data to project the expected reduction in waste from 3-D printing during the next 30 years. Our projections indicate that the overall manufacturing scrap rate could fall significantly from today’s level of 21%.

The ultimate amount will depend on the overall adoption of 3-D printing for production. Today, only 0.01% of all manufacturing output of finished products is 3-D printed (the majority being used for prototype production). If that adoption rate hits 20% of all manufacturing in the next 25 years, the amount of manufacturing waste could drop to 18%. If 3-D printing adoption hits 50% of all manufacturing, waste could drop to 13%—about 40% below today’s numbers.

5. Increase utilization of manufacturing operations

A 3-D printer can print 20 completely different products, one after the other, just as rapidly as it can print 20 copies of the same thing—an impossible feat for traditional production methods like injection molding or die casting.

As 3-D printing continues to gain traction, one of its most notable advantages will be higher utilization rates in the manufacturing infrastructure. Today, US manufacturing utilization is 75%, typical of global rates. But as 3-D printing matures, and the handling of raw materials and changeovers in products becomes increasingly automated, the overall utilization of additive manufacturing could grow to 90% or higher. Our economic analysis predicts an increase in utilization from today’s 75% to about 80% (resulting from a 20% adoption rate), or about 85% (resulting from a 50% adoption rate). Such gains would mean that capex required for adding new manufacturing capacity would be lower than what manufacturers are now accustomed to.

Challenges to adoption

Although 3-D printers and their capabilities are continuously evolving, there are many reasons why certain businesses may not adopt 3-D printers today. Some challenges include:

  • The rapid rate of evolution: Since technological capabilities are evolving rapidly, many enterprises would rather wait before committing to a particular solution or approach.
  • Consistency of printing operations: While one would expect two print runs on the same printer for the same geometry to produce identical parts, thereby eliminating the need to test each one, that is not always the case. Process control and inspection methods are evolving to ensure consistent and reliable processes.
  • Choice of materials: The materials available for 3-D printing are currently a fraction of the variety used in conventional methods. This limits when 3-D printing is a viable option.
  • Lack of expertise: The pool of people with experience using 3-D printing for production is limited, yet adoption and acceptance typically require a high degree of trial and error to help engineers and manufacturers learn what works and what does not.
  • Cost of materials: The cost of the inks used in 3-D printers is high, discouraging its use for higher-volume parts.
  • Cost of equipment: The equipment necessary for production with 3-D printing is pricey, and companies often need to hire trained personnel to operate and maintain the machinery.

Business considerations

3-D printing is a disruptive technology the effect of which will be felt on the full value chain from design to production. As businesses consider what 3-D printing means to their companies, they should keep in mind the following considerations:

  • Identify how your company would most benefit by 3-D printing by identifying the parts and assemblies you’d most like to be able to simplify, collapse into single components, make lighter, and/or improve their performance. These are good candidates to use for piloting new 3-D printing operations.
  • Identify products that are low-volume and need to change quickly when market dynamics change. These will be a better fit for 3-D printing operations than other products.
  • Have you ever shelved the manufacture of products with complex geometries due to high manufacturing costs and complexity? 3-D printing production can give new life to such products.
  • The learning curve on working with 3-D printing technology can be steep. Leading organizations are already doing proof of concept and pilots to learn the practical aspects of using 3-D printers, what skills they need to develop, and how they should reorganize their operations to use the printers in the most effective and productive manner. The time to get in front of this trend is now.
  • Companies with successful 3-D printing operations integrate their design and manufacturing teams. If you have a siloed organization, consider reorganizing to increase communication and collaboration between these teams.


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