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 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Skeptic’s Guide to 3D Printing

Perhaps the most promising near-term industrial application for 3D printing involves the production and inventorying of spare parts. For example, NASA is exploring 3D printing for making spare parts and tools aboard the International Space Station. This could be particularly valuable in cases of very slow moving inventory, such as tools or unique replacement parts. In other words, carrying all the tools needed to work on every item in the space station or a spare part for all noncritical items would take a significant amount of space (and weight), much more than a single printer. Although this is an extreme case (with very low “sales” volume), it’s also possible that companies such as automobile or appliance dealers may find it more beneficial to have certain small, low-volume repair parts printed on an as-needed basis at a repair facility than to keep a large stock of inventory.

And, although most applications will remain niche, 3D printers can trigger new business models thanks to their ability to readily share digital designs. For example, users have already created an open source community around MakerBot’s Thingiverse. Although this community is still in the nascent stages, thoughtful entrepreneurs will undoubtedly find a way to profit from such ecosystems as the 3D printing industry shakes up and then settles around common standards. The sheer accessibility to a means of production without prohibitive startup costs creates a flatter playing field, bringing more designers into open competition. Companies that lack scale economies can cost-effectively pilot a design concept, but successful designs will ultimately migrate to large-scale, mass production.

Optimism without Hype

Although on the basis of our forecast, we don’t buy all the hype around digital printing, we remain hopeful about its potential for driving change, for several reasons. For one, even though the 3D printer won’t alter the fundamental structure of global manufacturing, perhaps it can help bridge the digital divide and create new opportunities for manufacturing. Paralleling the opening of communications to remote and financially distressed areas, a shared low-cost 3D printer could allow village residents to print tools, replacement parts, or even simple medical apparatuses. Further, some researchers envision building replacement organs from a patient’s own cells. Of course, because printing organic, living cells is a far cry from manufacturing chess pieces from commodity-grade plastics or metals, this will require a very high level of sophistication.

Finally, although they are unlikely in the near term, breakthroughs in nanotechnology or in the ability to inexpensively create the raw materials needed for 3D printing from recycled household waste could completely change the economic trade-offs. We may eventually live in a world where factories that mass-produce goods become obsolete, because we’re producing them ourselves in the comfort of our own homes. But we wouldn’t bet on that happening anytime soon.

Reprint No. 00219

Author Profiles:

  • Tim Laseter is a professor of practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School. He is the author or coauthor of four books, including The Portable MBA (Wiley, 2010) and Strategic Product Creation (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Formerly a partner with Booz & Company, he has more than 25 years of business strategy experience.
  • Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School. His research focuses on innovation, with an emphasis on how firms implement their innovation strategy. Previously, he spent more than 10 years in industry, where he held roles in strategy, innovation, and engineering.


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