3D Printing — The Future of Manufacturing

I remember the early days of the telephone in India. My family waited 10 years to get a connection, and paid an arm and a leg to use it. If you had told me then that nearly everyone in India will have a mobile phone — some even have multiple connections in the same phone — I wouldn’t have believed you. But, here we are, with the mobile phone being the foundation of employment for hundreds of thousands of gig workers. Even literacy isn’t a barrier to using Google maps and GPS.

I believe that 3D printing will be a similarly transformative technology for this generation.

Image Credit: Getty

For the uninitiated, 3D printing is a computer-controlled process of manufacturing three-dimensional products using thermoplastics, liquids, resin, and more recently, gold, silver, titanium and ceramics. Straight out of science fiction, 3D printing deposits material layer by layer to create precise shapes.

It gained traction in the 1980s as a rapid prototyping technique. When someone has an idea, they’d use a 3D printer to give it a physical form so it can be demonstrated clearly. More importantly, it dramatically reduced the time from idea to prototype to just 1–2 days.

However, 3D printing didn’t see mass adoption. For primarily two reasons: Capabilities and price. Most 3D printers could only print simple products, of specific materials in small sizes. A 3D printer cost about $350,000 (nearly $700,000 in today’s rates) in the 1980s. Over time, the technology advanced significantly, but capabilities remained restrictive and costs continued to be prohibitive for individual customers.

It is only in the last 5 years that 3D printing has become mainstream. The capabilities have expanded dramatically. The manufacturing industry is using 3D printing to create spare parts, test prototypes, and take products to market quicker. NASA’s printing rocket engine injectors — and sending a 3D printer into outer space for astronauts to print tools, a ‘mini factory’ they call it. 3D printed prosthetics are growing. Dr Anthony Atala’s team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are 3D printing human organs. General Motors relied on its 3D printing capabilities to pivot to manufacturing ventilators and personal protective equipment quickly.

However, the price problems remain. So far, 3D printing has been the forte of large companies or well-funded universities at this point. Not so much the common man. This is because:

  1. The affordable $200 3D printers available on the market have very limited functionality. They can hardly print a few basic toys.

I see these as the natural teething troubles of high-potential technology. The day is not too far away when we click on a mobile app and print whatever we need. Say, download an image from the internet and print a three-dimensional version of it.

Just like the SaaS model for software products, there might be a day when we can buy the design for an object we need — a coffee mug, a clock, a pen, for instance — and just print them in our own homes. This would also solve the problem of instant gratification that e-commerce hasn’t been able to.

I also see 3D printing as the magic bullet for personalisation at scale. Businesses can allow customers to make infinite customisations to modular designs. For instance, if you’re 3D printing your computer, you can customize the many parts, creating something that’s uniquely suited to your needs. A product that’s personalised at this level would be extremely expensive if done the traditional way. 3D printing changes that.

It fundamentally alters the economics of production. The economies of scale, which has driven a vast majority of manufacturing in the 20th century will no longer be a limitation. Manufacturing a single unit of any product will be possible at affordable prices.

Like e-commerce solved the problem of the long tail, making rare products available to customers, 3D printing can power the next generation of manufacturing. In fact, it might change the manufacturing industry itself.

It might give rise to a number of distributed cottage industries manufacturing products for the local community. For instance, there is significant interest in 3D printing in the gourmet food industry, especially among chocolatiers. This can boost the customised chocolate market.

It might reduce the need for shipping and transportation of goods across the globe, saving carbon footprint. Tvasta, a startup incubated at IIT-M and L&T Construction, is a 3D printing solution for the housing and construction industry.

3D printing might even make it incredibly simple for innovators to take their products to market. 3D printed jewellery is gaining popularity for its precision and uniqueness.

Globally, investors have pumped over $600 million in at least 45 startups in the 3D printing space. Carbon and Desktop Metals have gained unicorn status. In India, the 3D printer market is projected to cross $79 million this year and it’s growing. Last year, HAL and Wipro 3D signed an MOU for manufacturing products for aerospace. Imaginarium, Divide By Zero and Anatomiz3D have 3D printed personal protection equipment.

Today, 3D printing has matured. It is no longer a science fiction fantasy. Twenty years from now, it would be such an integral part of our lives that we might not even give it a second thought.

Every generation has seen the advent of transformative technologies that reshaped the way humans live. Right from the radio, to telephones, the computer, the internet, and more — these technologies changed the foundations of society.

I believe that 3D printing will be a similarly transformative technology for this generation.

3D printing is a computer-controlled process of manufacturing three-dimensional products using thermoplastics, liquids, resin, and more recently, gold, silver, titanium and ceramics. Straight out of science fiction, 3D printing deposits material layer by layer to create precise shapes.

3D printing could potentially:

  • Enable personalization of products at scale

Today, 3D printing has matured. It is no longer a science fiction fantasy. Twenty years from now, it would be such an integral part of our lives that we might not even give it a second thought.

VC @Kalaari. Committed to entrepreneurship in India. Yoga enthusiast, Daily Meditator, Occasional runner & mom of two girls.