It might be the technology of tomorrow, but I was introduced to the idea of 3D print- ing in my childhood. As a Tintin fan, I was mesmerised by a gadget invented by the comic strip’s absent-minded genius, Professor Cuthbert Calculus, in Tintin and The Lake of Sharks that could duplicate anything using a special soap.

It could be a box or a hat or even a piece of art. The comic book, based on the film released in 1972, described hilarious situations that arose because the soap was an unstable compound and often reverted to its original state.

Sure, the comic book didn’t call it 3D printing; in fact, science hasn’t produced a portable 3D scanner and printer even today. But the basic idea was similar to 3D printing, one of the most disruptive technologies of the digital age that involves assembling complex three-dimensional objects layer by layer using a digital model as the source.

The technology was invented by U.S. engineer Charles Hull more than three decades ago, but for years it was seen as an obscure industrial process. Today, it is slowly changing the way we live and work. Globally, it’s shaking up manufacturing in sectors such as aerospace, healthcare, automobiles, and construction. In what some experts have enthusiastically described as the next Industrial Revolution, companies are experimenting with 3D printed products such as homes, car parts, and even prosthetic limbs. “3D printing has the potential to revolutionise traditional manufacturing, allowing companies to produce almost anything, layer by layer within the boundaries of a single 3D printer,” says Mahesh Makhija, partner and leader, digital and emerging tech at EY.

It might not be the next Industrial Revolution yet, but 3D printing has certainly come a long way from being seen as just a science fiction fantasy. The revolutionary technology is being used for some really cool things. For example, last year, a prototype of a 3D printed house was unveiled in Austin, Texas. And Belgium’s Antwerp region got a life-size replica of a mammoth fossil discovered in the region after a company used giant-sized 3D printers and scanners to replicate the 320 bones of the original at a Brussels museum. Closer home, Jaipur Watch Company launched a line of 3D printed stainless steel watches recently.

How exactly does 3D printing work? Simply put, instead of carving out metal parts or moulds from raw materials like aluminium or steel plates—the subtractive way of manufacturing—companies build components by adding layers of metals, plastics or powders on top of each other through what is described as “additive manufacturing”. So once designs are fed into the printer, it cranks out fully formed usable products from polymer, resin or metal, saving time, manpower, and money. If that’s a bit tough to wrap your head around, just think of the process as slices of a loaf of bread coming together to form the loaf.

This cutting-edge technology is playing a key role in the aerospace business. Many global manufacturing giants like the GE subsidiary GE Additive, Honeywell, and United Technologies are spending billions of dollars to develop jet engines and their parts, making it one of the fastest-growing areas of 3D printing. Makhija says the technology helps reduce aircraft weight, strengthens materials, and streamlines design, thereby ensuring lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft.

To understand the transformative and disruptive nature of 3D printing, just look at the Catalyst turboprop aircraft engine, the latest offering from GE Additive. Using this technology, the company was able to build a simpler, more efficient, and lighter engine. The number of parts came down from 855 to 12; fuel consumption fell 20%; and the engine’s weight went down 5%. “That’s the beauty of this new technology because it reduces costs and improves efficiency,” says Alok Nanda, chief technology officer of GE South Asia.

The success of additive manufacturing was clear to GE from its very first product—a fuel nozzle for its aircraft engine—in 2015-16. The existing 20-part nozzle wasn’t very durable since it needed to be welded, but by using additive technology GE reduced it to a single part, making it five times more durable. No wonder then the company invested more than $1 billion in acquiring two 3D manufacturing players—Germany-based Concept Laser and Sweden’s Arcam 3D. “Since we are the biggest users of 3D technology and have seen much success with our first 3D manufactured product, we decided to be pioneers and leaders in this technology,” says Nanda, who is also CEO of the John F. Welch Technology Center in Bengaluru. The disruptive nature of 3D printing comes from the fact that it is industry agnostic. GE is also using the technology in its power, oil and gas, and healthcare businesses.

And GE Healthcare is using 3D printing to manufacture customised implants or artificial devices for individuals.

Graphic by Anirban Ghosh
Graphic by Anirban Ghosh
Graphic by Anirban Ghosh
Graphic by Anirban Ghosh

In fact, healthcare is one field that’s making the most innovative use of 3D printing. In one of the most breakthrough uses of the technology, companies are offering customised prosthetics made on 3D printers. It essentially involves bio-printing or the process of 3D printing of artificial human-sized bones, cartilage, and muscle. Rajeev Singh, partner at Deloitte India, says body parts can be customised to one’s bone shape and size. That is exactly what Belgian firm Materialise, a pioneer in 3D printing, has been doing for years: It has worked with European doctors to make hip implants for replacement surgery considering the exact biomechanics of a specific patient. Materialise also uses 3D models to help doctors carry out complex surgeries.

While 3D printing has unlocked greater opportunities globally, it is still in its infancy in India. However, a few companies are making innovative use of the technology to make a difference in people’s lives. For example, Mumbai-based Imaginarium, a 3D prototyping and manufacturing firm, printed a titanium mesh cranial implant for a patient who had lost a skull fragment. Similarly, it printed a titanium mandibular implant for an oral cancer survivor whose face had become disfigured after he underwent surgery to remove the affected part of the jaw. It is also being used in other sectors: For example Indian Space Research Organisation is using some 3D printed components for its spacecraft. And JSW Steel collaborated with Siemens to use 3D printed oil sealing rings for a turbine at its captive power plant in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

But the area where 3D printing has really caught the imagination of manufacturers is the automobile sector. We have heard stories about how custom-made parts are giving a fresh lease of life to many vintage automobiles thanks to 3D printing.

The two leaders in India are Tata Motors and Maruti Suzuki which are using the technology for research and development (R&D) and prototype testing. Tata Motors was one of the first to adopt the technology at its R&D facility in Pune to test its designs to identify possible flaws at an early stage in the production line. “3D printing is an integral part of our production process,” Pratap Bose, vice president of global design at Tata Motors, told Fortune India last year. “We are running several internal initiatives around this technology, which involve designing select parts of the vehicle that are 3D printed. This also includes accessories and merchandise. However, the time isn’t far when 3D printing will achieve the scale and speed for mass manufacturing.” Maruti also uses 3D printing technology to test prototypes for design and engineering. It isn’t being used on the production line yet but expects the industry to go beyond just testing and perhaps use the technology to make the body of the car in the future.

$10 Billion
Size of the global 3D printing products and services market

HP India managing director Sumeer Chandra says the personal computers and printing major is working with carmakers like BMW and Volkswagen to see how they can use 3D printers to customise components for their customers, “whether it is a steering wheel or a part of the dashboard”. He adds that 3D printing can help reduce costs for carmakers because companies can create spare parts on demand. He explains that carmakers typically must stock spares for the lifetime of a model, which could sometimes be as long as 30 years. “So instead of creating those spare parts and stocking them, now you can print them on demand on 3D printers and get rid of years of inventory by manufacturing the part only when there’s a demand for it.” Agrees Sudipta Ghosh, partner and leader, data analytics, PwC India: “With 3D printing, it is not necessary to stock up expensive spare parts. 3D printing can be used for just-in-time local manufacturing of many critical parts, whose temporary absence can cause dissatisfaction among the customers.”

3D printing isn’t just the next big thing in aerospace and automobiles, it’s even changing the jewellery business. Jewellery, traditionally made with the more time-consuming process of metal cutting, can be produced faster using 3D printers. The technology has rendered the system of using moulds obsolete for companies such as online jewellery retailer Bluestone. Master designs can be made using precious metals in a 3D printer, eliminating the need to hold inventory. Imaginarium director Atit Kothari says 3D printing in jewellery has become a part of the production process and jewellers either make a master design on a 3D printer and then use wax to cast jewellery in precious metals, or make a jewellery piece on a 3D printer.

We have created an open platform where we would certify...material.”  
HP India managing director Sumeer Chandra.

indian players might not have adopted 3D printing on the same scale as some global companies, but experts believe the game-changing technology has enormous potential in the country. Industry tracker 6W research said in 2015 it expects the 3D printer market in India to touch $79 million by 2021. According to a 2019 report on 3D printing by Wohlers Associates, which tracks the sector, globally the industry is valued at close to $10 billion in products and services and has grown more than 60% over the past two years. But India has been slow to adopt additive manufacturing, Wohlers said in another report last year. One reason why businesses have been wary of adopting 3D printing is lack of understanding about the technology and prohibitive costs. Industrial printers for additive manufacturing start upwards of $5,000. In India, HP’s version costs ₹2.5 crore. “Since 3D printing is product and design-specific and is locally manufactured, it does not lend itself to economies of scale,” argues PwC’s Ghosh.

But the biggest factor that has held back wider adoption of 3D printing is material technology. Deloitte’s Singh explains that as of now most applications of the technology in manufacturing are for plastic parts. But industrial printing can make products out of metals like powdered alloys as well, and these don’t always have the necessary strength and heat resistance of fabricated metal objects. However, things are looking up.

This year’s Wohlers Report highlights a growth in material development and consumption. The sale of metal materials, such as powdered alloys, grew an estimated 41% in 2018, the report said. 3D printer manufacturers like HP are working with partners for the supply of raw materials such as plastics and metal. “We have created an open platform where we would certify, but other companies would provide the raw material,” Chandra says.

Since we’re the biggest users, we decided to be pioneers in this technology.”  
Alok Nanda, chief technology officer of GE South Asia.

Let’s take it a notch higher. What if we could apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to 3D printing? You’d think we’re entering futuristic space-age territory, right? Not really. According to experts, this will help in identifying and reducing errors in 3D printing, which will increase precision and the ability to replicate the process. That’s what 3D software major Autodesk has done. The solution, which Autodesk calls generative design, allows you to just key in the requirements (or the problem) and ask for the software to come up with a solution. The software also tests the designs to see what works and what doesn’t. “It uses the power of automation and artificial intelligence to augment the ability of designers and engineers to define, explore, and choose alternatives,” explains Pankaj Gauba, head-sales, digital manufacturing group, India & ASEAN, Autodesk.

This way, 3D printing is revolutionising the design process. Volkswagen recently used generative design to create an electric-powered version of an iconic vintage bus. The company applied the process to the wheels, steering wheel, and support structure to reduce the weight of the bus—and all this was done within months, a process that would normally have taken years. Airbus has also used this technology to design partitions for airplane cabins, while sportswear major Under Armour has designed and developed its first pair of 3D printed cross-training sneakers using this software.

Generative design uses automation and AI to augment ability of designers.”  
Pankaj Gauba, head-sales, digital manufacturing group, India & ASEAN, Autodesk.

But such state-of-the-art, futuristic images are furthest from my mind as I negotiate truant e-rickshaw drivers and lounging cows in the dusty bylanes of Noida in the National Capital Region, where IT services firms compete for frontage with garages and junkyards. Bang in the middle of all this sits Adroitec, a company that provides 3D printing and additive manufacturing services. Inside its workshop is a range of 3D printers, ready to crank out objects for a price. Chandra feels service bureaus like Adroitec will go a long way in popularising 3D printing among manufacturers. And that is why HP has placed such a huge bet on the technology, describing it as a future growth area. HP has three partners in India—in Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai—who provide 3D printing as a service. “You don’t have to buy a 3D printer necessarily to actually get a part printed… you can just get that for a fee… we do think in India that model will prove relevant, especially for small and medium businesses, because they might not have the capital or financial muscle to buy a 3D printer, but they can clearly get accessible service,” Chandra says. Prices for a 3D printed part, including the cost of material, start at ₹2,000, according to Adroitec.

While such service bureaus are geared towards large businesses, their 3D printers can also print smaller every-day use products— from that broken tray in your refrigerator to the lost battery lid of your remote. From a consumer’s perspective, when service bureaus become as ubiquitous as photocopying shops, then you can have any part 3D printed. The technology has the potential to disrupt any industry that requires manufacturing, but its big advantage is offering the ability to manufacture a smaller number of customised objects in less time. It is faster and cheaper in certain use-cases, and could make inventories a thing of the past as it becomes possible to churn out custom-made products on demand.

These benefits mean that 3D printing technology can help Indian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) leapfrog into advanced manufacturing like making aircraft parts and the like. And it’ll be a great leveller since all companies are starting out on 3D technology and early starters will be the biggest beneficiaries. “I am quite bullish about the technology because it actually helps Indian companies get into advanced manufacturing much more effectively than ever before,” says GE’s Nanda. As the cost of 3D printing comes down, “SMEs will be able to print customised parts at a lower CPP (cost per part) as they will not be required to invest in costly physical” overheads, EY’s Makhija adds.

HP is betting on SMEs taking to 3D printing in a big way. “HP has been committed to creating technology that advances lives and businesses across India,” Chandra had said when HP launched its first 3D printer in India last year, adding it would “enable local businesses to adopt best-in-class manufacturing technologies”. The company is in it for the long haul. As customers get comfortable with 3D printing, they will start replacing some aspects of traditional manufacturing with 3D printing, “especially in things like spare parts”. In such cases, 3D printing will help get rid of wastage, transportation costs, and “other things that traditional manufacturing is disadvantaged with”, says Chandra.

While 3D printing isn’t going to replace traditional manufacturing in a hurry, industry experts say it will complement and augment manufacturing. It will shorten the time you need to bring a product to market from the development stage, reduce the need to maintain certain inventories, and also customise products. Plus, it can also reduce the environmental impact of production. Industry will move to 3D printing products which beat traditional manufacturing in terms of cost and time, as we have seen in hi-tech industries such as defence, space, healthcare, and automobiles. But going ahead, it’s also going to be about value creation and differentiation. After all, why should the handles of a turquoise suitcase be a drab black? 3D printing will not only enable you to create turquoise handles but even print a customised message on it. And you’d pay a premium to be able to do that. How cool is that.

This was originally published in the August 2019 issue of the magazine.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.