Imagine if you didn’t need to halt production when a machine part breaks. Instead of waiting for a new component to be delivered, you 3-D print it in a matter of hours. As a result, the machine is up and running quickly, getting production efforts back on track before your boss is even aware of the problem.

Or perhaps you are a car enthusiast and like to rebuild older models as a hobby. Parts for collector cars may be obsolete, difficult to obtain or expensive depending on what you are seeking. But once again, you have access to a 3-D printer and a design file that allows you to quickly print that hard-to-find, costly part for which you’ve been searching.

In the age of constant change, there is always something new around the corner, revolutionizing the way we think, work and live. And even with innovation all around us, something can come along that changes the way products are manufactured and business conducted in the 21st century. Enter 3-D printing – the industrial revolution of the modern age.

A Printing Revolution

As we look back through history, few points have had as significant an impact on the world marketplace as the Industrial Revolution, which started overseas and came to the United States in the 1800s. This period marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production. Hand tools were replaced by machines and the assembly line streamlined production efforts and saved on costs.

Many have deemed additive manufacturing or 3-D printing the next wave of the industrial revolution. In 3-D printing, many successive thin layers of material are laid down, creating a three-dimensional object from a digital model. This much-hyped technology is not new, but has the potential to tip the innovation process on its head, transforming the way entrepreneurs and businesses work today.

You can 3-D print almost anything, even chocolate. Scott Crump, founder, chairman and chief innovation officer of Stratasys, is an inventor of a 3-D chocolate printer (patent pending). Larry Doerr ’01 M.B.A. is chief operations officer at Stratasys. According to Doerr, Crump invented the technology while helping his daughter create a frog in 1988. Using a hot glue gun filled with a mixture of polyethylene and candle wax, he shaped a 3-D frog layer by layer and later determined a way to automate the process. In April 1992, Stratasys sold its first product, the 3-D Modeler. Since then, Stratasys has been growing, expanding, merging and acquiring. Most recently, Stratasys acquired MakerBot, one of the first companies to offer an affordable 3-D printer for the home.

Lawrence Doerr

Lawrence Doerr (Photo by Mark Brown)

An Engineer Turned M.B.A.

Doerr has been with Stratasys for nearly seven years, joining the organization at a time when its revenue was already $112 million. Though he wasn’t looking for a job at the time, he was contacted by a recruiter who encouraged him to research the company and meet with Crump. After learning about Crump’s vision, he knew the company would be a great fit. Since then, it has experienced explosive growth. In March 2014, Stratasys released its 2013 financial data with revenue of $487 million, demonstrating just how far the company has come during Doerr’s tenure.

While 3-D printers have been around for more than 20 years, this technology is just now achieving significant market adoption. Due in large part to the availability of more affordable models, countless industries are adopting the technology in one way or another, from concept modeling to rapid prototyping, to jigs and fixtures, and even manufactured end-use parts. Doerr noted, “3-D printing is opening up new frontiers in traditional applications and allowing for customization in areas never dreamed of before.” An engineer by training, Doerr’s MBA education provided him with broad business skills and acumen to be a more effective leader; therefore, he understands the importance of key business objectives such as time-to-market for new products and designs. “3-D printing accelerates time-to-market by allowing for a rapid iteration process, failing fast and learning fast,” Doerr said. “3-D printers allow design freedom that does not exist with any other technology.”

Rapid Growth and Significant Advantages

“The 3-D printing industry is expected to continue strong double-digit growth over the next several years,” according to the Wohlers Report 2013, an annual in-depth analysis of additive manufacturing and 3-D printing worldwide. “It took the 3-D printing industry 20 years to reach $1 billion in size. In five additional years, the industry generated its second $1 billion. It is expected to double again, to $4 billion, in 2015.” Wohlers predicts that by 2017, the sale of 3-D printing products and services will be close to $6 billion worldwide, and by 2021, the industry will reach $10.8 billion.

The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) further demonstrated the growth of 3-D printing with nearly 30 exhibitors, up from just eight the previous year. Bloomberg Businessweek identified home 3-D printing as one of the 10 most notable innovations from CES: “With several companies introducing 3-D printers for home use, you’ll soon be able to produce toys, belts, cups, spare parts, and other plastic items at home as easily as printing a document.”

This technology will continue to be a hot topic as its applications and impact on the marketplace evolve. While some may struggle to understand the scope of the technology or how 3-D printing is even possible – it’s hard to believe you can print a component that moves or a battery that can provide power – those benefiting from this technology know that it offers a growing list of advantages.

Laura Dunham, associate professor and chair of the Entrepreneurship Department at the Opus College of Business, said it best when she noted, “3-D printing applications span the marketplace, from hobbyists and consumers to entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies. It’s an important technology that lets startups prototype and test their ideas more quickly, allows an infinite degree of customization and personalization, and has the potential to eliminate the need for large warehouses of inventory, when in fact, one could just print what they need on-site, in real-time.”

Other significant advantages that 3-D printing has over traditional manufacturing methods include design freedom, shorter time-to-market and the potential for real-time manufacturing.

Infinite design freedom
According to Doerr, 3-D printing allows design freedom that does not exist with conventional manufacturing processes such as injection molding. Stratasys uses a process that involves two materials – the model material and a support material. Usually, the support material is dissolvable, allowing the engineer to create parts with internal features by dissolving away the support material once printing is complete.Design freedom also means the ability to create shapes that don’t yet exist. The possibilities are truly endless, and complexity does not make something more expensive to print or produce.

Time-to-market
3-D printing allows engineers to refine and revise new designs very rapidly, without making the time and dollar commitment for hard tooling, Doerr said. A 3D-printed part can take hours (or up to a day or two), where as a tooled part would take weeks, even months … and then if the design changes, the tool could become obsolete.In current manufacturing, a different mold is needed for each part. In 3-D printing, a computer tells the printer what to produce, and a modification requires only a click of the mouse, changing the whole equation of scale. Ultimately, this equates to less waste and less risk overall.

Real-time production
This technology also affords the ability to print on demand when something is needed, reducing the need to stockpile inventory and transforming modern-day production processes.

3D Printing in Action

While not everyone has a 3-D printer in their home, consumer models are growing in popularity and making brands such as MakerBot a household name. This only furthers the reach of this technology, truly demonstrating its impact on both industry and pop culture. From “makers” who love to create designs and share them with others in the field to big business using this technology to streamline manufacturing and the overall innovation process, examples of this ever-changing technology are everywhere.

  • With 3-D printing, NASA could print equipment in space. It already uses this technology to create some of its customized shuttle parts.
  • It may one day change the way we eat. Depending on what is fed into the machine – chocolate, dough, potatoes – specialty chocolates, pizza and hash browns can be “printed” and ready to eat. With dough cartridges instead of ink, cookies, crackers and brownies can be produced.
  • Celebrities have even jumped on the 3-D printing bandwagon. Jay Leno uses his 3-D printer to reproduce old, obsolete parts for his car collection. Gone are the days of having a machinist try to copy the part and then build it.

Despite its 20-year history, 3-D printing technology is still continuing to evolve as new materials are introduced into the printing equation and the speed with which something can be printed increases. While there is no technology that provides a solution to every customer’s problem, 3-D printing has the ability to transform a business’ ability to serve its customers. Today, 3-D printing means quick turnaround time, customization and endless design possibilities. But tomorrow, who knows what will be possible?