Develop the ability to “think 3-D printing”

August 22, 2016



3-D printing could lead to a gradual, long-term transformation of internal and external value chains that span design, manufacturing, use, and service. How will you maintain your competitive advantage?

Twelve weeks or so into a pregnancy, many of us get a first glimpse of our children from a live ultrasound video. If you’ve had more than one child, you may have noticed how much sharper these images have become over the years. In the future, you can thank 3-D printing for the machines that “see inside your body” to produce these ever-better images with greater reliability at lower cost.

GE pioneered the use of 3-D printing in ultrasound probes, first for medical use and now in sectors where noninvasive inspections are important for safety and performance, including aircraft maintenance, oil extraction, and electricity generation. GE’s experience underscores a key takeaway from PwC’s research on 3-D printing. Much like the Internet, 3-D printing is a general-purpose technology that can transform a product or service in unique ways today, while providing a runway that will extend its impact for a long time in the future.

The capabilities offered through 3-D printing have the potential to transform internal and external value chains that span design, manufacturing, use, and service. This article examines how your enterprise could use these developments for competitive advantage.

Printing and the Internet: Strange cousins

The Internet started as a channel to disseminate product and other information. Today it is a multifaceted business imperative at the core of an enterprise’s digital transformation, impacting customer relationships, service delivery, efficiency, and agility. Many businesses that did not take the Internet seriously early on do not exist today or now struggle to compete.

The impact of 3-D printing could be similar. Although most businesses today consider 3-D printing as a manufacturing technology for prototyping, the longer-term impact will be based on its use for manufacturing finished products and taking advantage of shifts in internal and external value chains that will unfold over a long time, perhaps decades. Ultimately, 3-D printing could carry businesses beyond the purely digital world. “3-D printing is one of the first areas where digital truly meets physical,” says Christine M. Furstoss, global technology director of manufacturing and materials technologies at GE’s global research center.

These are early days, and the road to adopting and integrating 3-D printing into your products and operations may not be obvious. How 3-D printing applies is likely to be particular to your business, based on your product portfolio, supply chain, business model, and so on. Engaging with 3-D printing will be a journey rather than a product purchase. Therefore, your 3-D printing strategy will evolve over time through discovery, experimentation, and experience. PwC concludes that any company not already engaged with 3-D printing should start this journey of discovery now.

How to get started?

Here are some lessons everyone can draw from GE’s experience with ultrasound sensors:

  • Identify a critical component that is difficult or expensive to manufacture. GE’s ultrasound sensors create and sense sound waves by using many small chambers in a ceramic device. Historically, manufacturing relied on dicing—making millions of tiny cuts in the material. It was time-consuming and prone to failure partway through the slicing process. First and foremost, 3-D printing was a more reliable, less expensive way to make the sensors.
  • Use 3-D printing to extend the performance of the component. Conventional methods of making millions of tiny cuts allowed only straight or rectilinear shapes in the sensor. The use of 3-D printing freed designers to try new patterns, unconstrained by the slicing approach. GE discovered that more complex, random shapes created by 3-D printing processes resulted in better, more refined images.
  • Look for new applications of higher-performing components in other sectors. GE found that 3-D printing allowed higher-frequency acoustic processing, ultimately delivering finer resolution than needed in health applications. GE then discovered new uses for this capability in industrial inspection products that require noninvasive, finer-resolution capabilities.

GE has also applied 3-D printing to jet engine fuel nozzles, engine brackets, and turbine blades, among others. And it is not just about manufacturing. “3-D printing opens new ways of thinking, not only about our products but also about the whole design process,” Furstoss suggests.

From prototyping to finished products

Today’s 3-D printing market continues to be dominated by prototyping, which is an important capability but not likely to change the game. PwC expects the 3-D printing market will likely accelerate only when the technology is used in final part production, not just prototyping. “For us, 3-D printing is not just for the engineering validation prototype. That’s one of our uses, but it is also a manufacturing technology to create finished products,” shares Furstoss.

“3-D printing opens new ways of thinking, not only about our products but also about the whole design process.” –Christine Furstoss, GE

Today there are a few businesses that use 3-D printing for creating final products. GE is using it to create fuel nozzles for their jet engines. Invisalign manufactures millions of custom dental braces every year. More than 30 parts in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane are 3-D printed parts, and Lockheed used finished 3-D printed parts in satellites built for NASA. These companies are early adopters who capably use today’s limited 3-D printing offerings.

PwC’s research on 3-D printing highlights both the limits of today’s printers, supportive software, and materials, as well as the promising developments occurring in the 3-D printing ecosystem. Here’s a recap.


The market for 3-D printers and services is still largely bifurcated. At the low end are limited- function offerings of interest to hobbyists. At the high end are expensive printers that have a limited total available market. Even across the range of printers there are performance limitations. These include the speed of fabrication and the impact of speed on throughput, the ability to print objects using multiple materials, and the ability to print fully functional systems, such as small combinations of computers and sensors.

These limits are being addressed, as described in the article “The road ahead for 3-D printers.” The prices of high-end printers are dropping, and service bureaus are much more prevalent. The key for market growth is the continuing development of printers in the middle price range to achieve advances in performance, in multi-material capability, and in printing complete systems.


Software is integral to sourcing or designing 3-D objects from scratch and serves as the interface between designers and users on the one hand, and delivering printable files on the other. Opportunities for software innovation are abundant. Chief among them are to simplify the experience of engaging with 3-D printing technologies, thereby making them more broadly accessible.

Today’s software functionality echoes the printers and materials: the design options and performance characteristics of the printed object are limited, often to one material and far from entire systems. As materials and printers advance, PwC expects a rapid introduction of management features in software aligned with these developments. Together, they will form the foundation for the industry to move beyond prototyping and pivot toward printing finished products and components.


For physical matter, there is no Moore’s law or exponential rise in functionality. Consequently, 3-D printing is still experimenting with materials and probably always will be. No perfect solutions exist, only tradeoffs calculated with increasing precision. Today, material characteristics limit the resolution at which objects can be printed. Only a few material types are available. And it is still early to predict the final material properties of a 3-D-printed object, especially when considering nanoscale molecular interaction effects. The question is whether the number and resources of the people working on these materials challenges have reached a critical mass, so solutions can be confidently expected.

The answer appears to be yes. The PwC Technology Forecast article on materials explored several key developments. Resolutions will improve to the germ level. Wider repertoires of materials, including metal, living tissue, and more plastics, will become routinely available. Eventually, 3D printers will be able to fabricate systems rather than parts, and they will be able to engineer the physical properties of an object and its shape. Standards will be encoded to ensure the results are commercially viable. The only uncertainty is when—not if—these capabilities will become commonplace and affordable.

Got 3-D printing?

Here are some reasons why enterprises should pay attention to 3-D printing now:

  • The impact of 3-D printing will unfold over a long time and will be pervasive across internal and external value chains that span design, manufacturing, use, and service.
  • Understanding and integrating 3-D printing methods in current value chains will be a discovery process that evolves through exploration and experimentation. Engaging early is necessary to stay competitive.
  • The pace of innovation in 3-D printing is fast and diverse. Internal talent will need to have adequate hands-on experience with 3-D printing to be in a position to take advantage of innovations.
  • The capabilities offered through 3-D printing will force businesses to raise their expectations about instrumentation and feedback control used in current methods of manufacturing. Those who engage with 3-D printing will get better at conventional manufacturing as well.

To summarize, 3-D printing is poised to become a force beyond its conventional use in prototyping. The key gating factors are the following:

  • The 3-D printers must become faster and easier to use, handle multiple materials, and print active components or systems.
  • The processes of sourcing, creating, optimizing, and printing 3-D models must become simpler and more robust.
  • Resolutions must improve, material choices must expand, and methods to control their properties must evolve.

But don’t wait for perfection. Don’t even wait for “enterprise ready.” The general applicability of 3-D printing to many future products and services across a number of sectors is a given. But learning to “think 3-D printing” in the design, manufacture, and servicing of products is unlikely to be a current asset in your company. It’s time to start learning how.


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