A variation of the concept has been used in for instance the Automotive Industry for the last several decades through Computer Aided Design (CAD) whereby design stored on computer would be provide information to machine which could for instance cut out of clay or similar substance mock up of a vehicle. This helped save time and costs compared with manual crafting of prototypes.
Additive Manufacturing is an adaptation of scanning and photocopying technology, whereby a laser printer with a 3D head replicates a product using data stored on software. Loughborough University has created a one piece car door handle whereby components has been reduced to one and for instance the springs are integrated into the moulding. They are also looking at applications in the construction industry using concrete whereby structures are being built out of concrete with the laser headed machinery directing the application of the material.
The plane component manufacturer EDAS is making low volume bespoke products for the aerospace industry, whilst BMW through their EOS company is manufacturing 3D manufacturing printers.
The attraction of the process is that large warehouses are not required. You can manufacture to order and also manufacture on site or at a more local location. This will cut emissions, haulage and storage costs. The processes are looking at using newer lighter materials and again to save cost, weight and emissions.
As the processes are stored on computer the product can be adapted or customized to meet the need of the customer. Software is already available whereby one can undertake your own digital forming. In other words if you have the right equipment and software you can adapt a product to your needs.
Instead of buying an off the peg door handle in store, you instead you programme the computer your required adaptations, and it manufactures for your in store. One area where it is seen this will have great use is products such as jewellery.
The attraction of 3D manufacturing is easier entry to market. You can have a design and be manufacturing it very rapidly. One area for development in the additive manufacturing market is lead time in the manufacturing cycle itself.
The 20th Century was very much about Mass Industrialisation and accepting the product made for you- any colour you wants so long as it is black.. Gradually, we are moving to Mass Customisation, and more so with using Additive Manufacturing processes and finally mass individualisation whereby the customer in the shop, or at home will be adding creativity and design to make the product unique to them.
There are limitations such as the type of materials you can use eg it does not work with rubber foam, aluminium and glass. Also size, the processes may be more suitable for smaller products.
Even so a as the processes develop it will be an increasing part of the manufacturing landscape. Also, because many costs are reduced and there still requires a high skill involvement it may bring various types of manufacturing back to Europe previously outsourced on costs grounds.
Whilst the technology is exciting offering huge potential the legal landscape will have to adapt as well. The issues that immediately spring to mind include intellectual property rights. If a product is customised or adapted who owes the copyright and other IP rights in the final product?
What about product liability issues? Say adaptations are made which causes weaknesses or dangers then who will have responsibility?
On a plus point these processes may lead to increased use of franchising whereby a manufacturer has local satellites manufacturing its products under licence using software and hardware provided by the parent company. Easier entry to market may encourage innovation turning in to product in the market place. Quicker lead times to market will mean Patent Registration and licensing having to work to a shorter lead time as well.
If companies are involving greater creativity on the part of the customer will this affect the value of a business, bearing in mind increasing value in a product is to be found in its protected IP rights.
3D Manufacturing or Additive Manufacturing is here in relatively small scale, it needs to mature and develop before it has a fundamental impact on the market place, however it is here and now it is time for the legislators and regulators to respond quickly to ensure it can work in practice before a mass market.
©Julian Wilkins 2011