The manufacturing industry has seen widespread disruption with the influx of digital technology which has caused an evolution in production methods. As time has passed, the industry has consistently been looking for methods that would enable constant upward growth, combining low material costs and quick time to market. Industrial 3D printing is one such method that has emerged as a prime contender in the space. According to an EY report, 36% of global firms have already moved towards applying this technology in their everyday working, validating its importance to the industry. India too has seen a distinct upturn in interest in 3D printing, with multiple industries now driving the transformation in the sector. While most use cases currently revolve around prototyping, the evolution of the technology has now allowed for organisations to move towards its implementation in the commercial production process.

3D printing the future

Historically, lasers and computers did not meet the requirements of modern production environments – which is why it was used in Rapid Prototyping (RP) to start with – where it accelerated time to market. Today, we are in addition ensuring that we constantly reduce production costs – which is essential for serial production. One of the first steps towards altering this situation is the need for a change in perspective towards 3D printing.

The industry scenario today demands that organisations evaluate the reasoning behind their choice of utilising 3D printing and focus on integration strategies based on these evaluations rather than merely purchasing 3D printers as part of an industry trend. Organisations have begun this endeavour by engaging in customer co-creation initiatives that help them better understand the 3D printing ecosystem and work towards creating customised solutions for individual customers. To facilitate these solutions and future innovations, manufacturers and material suppliers are now collaborating more closely, leading to an overall improvement in the product development process. These collaborations help reduce the product design cycles over time and ensure optimal time to market, an advantage that is of utmost importance to the growth of the industry.

The Indian startup advantage

As the demand for more efficient manufacturing methods continues to grow in the world, this need for a faster time to market can be universally observed globally. India represents one region where this need is strongly felt and hence provides space for innovation. While the growth of 3D printing in India has been comparatively slow, the country still possesses a very strong startup ecosystem that has been supported by the government since 2015. The goal is to bring more entrepreneurs into the space and lead the development of more streamlined 3D printers. India possesses a large maker community that has circumvented the issue of high printer prices (1 lakh and above for industrial grade printers) by sharing resources and working collaboratively. In addition to the maker community, formal industry players too have been active in this space, leading to a high rate of adoption of 3D printers in isolated regions with a small but thriving SME population. These successes will eventually embolden larger organizations to follow suit and replicate their efforts to use 3D printing for mainstream production, especially in the aerospace, automotive and healthcare sectors.

The rocky road ahead

The transition from prototyping to serial production comes with its own set of roadblocks. As stated previously, the cost of 3D printers in countries like India are still too high to allow for widespread usage for mass production. This is set to change in the near future, however, with greater industry attention being paid to the profitability of 3D printing, thereby raising the possibility of government funding. Additionally, investors continue to view the industry with a sense of caution, leading to a reluctance to fund promising ventures that have the potential to make significant impact. As the number of viable use cases become more prolific in the manufacturing sector, however, this challenge can be overcome, and organisations will soon be adequately funded to develop more local, on-site innovations that will help in the endeavour to mass produce 3D printed products. Finally, the democratisation of the design process, where individuals across geographies can work together to create customised products, is only possible if the required wireless connectivity can be established. As 5G and other wireless technologies become more common in India, network infrastructure will be made available to resolve this issue, in line with the government’s plan to bring 5G to India by 2022.

Digital transformation has made a telling impact on multiple industries including the manufacturing industry. 3D printing today is the latest aspect of a long line of innovations that has aimed to streamline the manufacturing process and optimise production cycles over time. Despite its gradual rate of growth, this technology holds significant potential for disruption across industries and organisations must focus on implementing 3D printing strategies as part of their regular production processes, thereby representing the pinnacle of the technology’s evolution for its prototyping origins.

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