3D printing: “Complexity is free” may be costly for some

3D printing: “Complexity is free” may be costly for some

3D printing: “Complexity is free” may be costly for some

Additive manufacturing (AM)—the proper technical term for 3D printing—is likely to have an enormous impact on all our lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for every business.

Additive manufacturing (AM)—the technical term for 3D printing—is likely to have an enormously positive impact on all our lives, but for some businesses, it could be devastating. The outlook for many companies will hinge on the ways they respond to this evolving technology and its competitive implications.

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A common additive manufacturing catchphrase helps frame the challenge some companies will face:

Complexity is free with additive manufacturing.

When people say complexity is free, they are implicitly recognizing that AM technology can be incredibly versatile. Because it generally produces objects “layer by layer,” it can fabricate items that simply cannot be produced using other means. Many people find this to be one of the most exciting attributes of AM.

This critical attribute could transform the way some manufacturers operate, and it may force others into obsolescence.

Consider that many products are currently assembled out of multiple subcomponents. Often, this is because of constraints imposed by the way they are designed and manufactured. For example, using traditional methods to machine complex internal structures for automotive or aircraft engine subcomponents requires that those internal structures are generally accessible to machine tools and then assembled into a larger component. Of course, in addition to the multiple subcomponents required to create a final assembly, there are also the many brackets and fasteners (screws, nuts, bolts, clips, etc.) required to hold everything together.

But with AM, such complexity may be “free.” That is, intricate structures may be created without the need for direct machine-tool access, reducing the need for multiple subcomponents. A well-known example from GE Aviation illustrates the point. For its next-generation aircraft engine, GE successfully engineered a new kind of additively manufactured fuel nozzle that improves fuel economy and eliminates the need for subcomponents; instead of being assembled from 20 different parts, it is manufactured as a single piece.1

Now, eliminating 95 percent (or 67 percent, or 30 percent) of the pieces, brackets, and fasteners required for assembly is almost certainly a good thing for any business, but what are the implications for the producers of each of those lower-level items? Logically speaking, they will not be needed.

The closer you are to producing subcomponents that are not core to the function of higher-level assemblies (e.g., the screw that holds a cover plate on the side of an internally complex subcomponent), the more strategic the uncertainty you may face. Producers of brackets and fasteners should take note: If the need for assembly is significantly reduced (or eliminated), ancillary components may become unnecessary—and therefore, subject to elimination.

Of course, the die is far from cast. Most companies are still in the very early stages of exploring the impact that AM can have beyond its traditional role as a driver of rapid prototyping. Nonetheless, a shift is underway. Applications of AM to final part production now represent one of the fastest growing segments of the market.

There are a couple of steps that company leaders can begin to take to position themselves for success, rather than possible obsolescence, in an AM-enabled marketplace:

  • Understand your company’s position in the supply chain. Do your company’s products facilitate the assembly of a complicated, higher-level assembly? If yes, and especially if your product’s function is incidental to the function of the higher-level assembly, then your business may be at long-term risk from AM diffusion. You might want to think about how subcomponent elimination might affect your position in the chain.
  • Develop a sense of how your supply-chain partners are approaching AM technology. Are they moving beyond rapid prototyping applications to manufacture for end use? If the answer is yes, then time may be of the essence. Consider how your company will develop the technical capability to match or exceed competitors’ and other supply chain partners’ ability to disintermediate you. If the answer is no, look for opportunities to strike as a first mover to blunt competitors’ future efforts.  Either way, you want to position your company to benefit from possible part consolidations rather than being hurt by them.

It is increasingly possible to imagine an AM-driven shift toward supply chain consolidation, even as the technology is celebrated for democratizing production in other ways. AM technologies are rapidly evolving, and key aspects of their value proposition are increasingly clear. If not free, complexity is, at a minimum, getting less expensive. That may be a generally good thing, but some companies may suffer in the transition.2

I am interested in your other thoughts about how AM will create both winners and losers. It is important for us to separate the reality from the hype. Feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.


View all endnotes
  1. “Printing a high performance fuel nozzle,” ASME video, December 2013, https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/media/aerospace-defense/video-printing-high-performance-fuel-nozzle.
  2. For a full discussion of the strategic paths that companies might follow on their AM journey, please see: Mark Cotteleer and Jim Joyce, “3D opportunity: Additive manufacturing paths to performance, innovation, and growth,” Deloitte Review, January 2014, http://dupress.com/articles/dr14-3d-opportunity/.

Written By

Mark J. Cotteleer

Mark J. Cotteleer is a research director with Deloitte Services LP, affiliated with Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research. His research focuses on operational and financial performance improvement, in particular, through the application of advanced technology.

3D printing: “Complexity is free” may be costly for some
  • Andrew

    So a dark side to 3D printing? Interesting. Seems like this could be a big issue for small to medium sized companies. Can anyone comment on what they are seeing at this level of the industry? How fast is this kind of thing happening?

  • Brandon

    I actually don’t think larger companies taking advantages of 3D printing technology at scale is a dark side of 3D printing. I think it’s actually really important for [large companies] to lead the way, which certainly provides the industry with R&D that the small and medium sized companies will eventually take advantage of.

    I’m curious to know if you think that the sustainability 3D printing provides, whether it is enhanced recyclability, localized manufacturing, or localized distribution, will offset these future losing companies (i.e., companies that make brackets and fasteners) economically.

  • Brian Zrimsek

    Nice work Doc.

    Got me thinking about my internship in a turbine blade plant and an ERP project I did for a powdered metals company.

    The first example was lost wax vacuum casting with ceramic cores. As critical as the blades are to the engine there are many steps in the mfg process. Gotta wonder if those could be produced differently with this technology.

    Similarly, powdered metals seems ready made for AM as they already use powder to get certain forms cheaper and faster than other methods.

    So while some may have to assess their spot in the supply chain, others should be innovating how they make the more valuable parts as it would seem that the barriers of entry are getting smaller.

    My $.02.

    • Universal Celebrity

      A Vertical Shaft Wind Turbine Comes To Mind !

  • plasticspro

    3D printing is going where plastic processing already has been – integrating mutliple components into one part. This is also a common theme in many of the 6Sigma teachings about design and improvement of the design. However, the materials and the new integrated part, when finished, have to meet and exceed the various measurements of the prior assembly in order to be acceptable as a end use part.

  • Simon Goldenberg

    This is a good reminder that any revolutionary advance has had winners and losers. Examples in manufacturing include the proverbial buggy whip makers, and the all too real slide rule makers. I think Additive Manufacturing is likely to become a mainstream technology within the next few years. Therefore now is the time for companies to start looking at the impacts of AM.

  • bpelt1000

    Much like the internet created an equal playing field for small businesses to compete and “look” like the big guys, AM is equally positioned to do the same within the manufacturing space. Manufacturers of those low level screws and hinges (and many sub-component supply chain vendors) will be challenged by AM or embrace it to become more strategic with their clients; particularly as the speed, build sizes, and materials continue to improve and implementation costs decline. Very nice thought provoking article!

  • emigdio mastachi

    3D printing has to be going with new plastic materials and or metals that may combine different characteristics on subassemblies tied together for the final product . As plasticspro indicates , finished product always have to meet and exceed the various quality measurements . Possibly it has to be included a coat of protective material all over the finished product to make it fully acceptable .

  • Mike

    I can see where there are a number of advantages to AM especially where prototyping is needed and there is a possibility of multiple revisions to that prototype, where slight modification require adjustments to tooling, fixtures or jigs. Using AM to build those prototypes allows for quick changes to adjust form, fit and function of a part or component when fine tuning is needed. Even in designing jigs and fixtures that hold small parts can be a undertaking to get the part to fit exactly as needed for other operations.

  • naishal thakker

    It is interesting the example you mentioned about GE, manufacturing a fuel nozzle by AM, which otherwise would require 20 sub components. My question is what if a small part of fuel is damaged. With traditional manufacturing that small part could easily be replaced without effecting remaining 19 parts. With AM, I think we will need to make whole part again. Is there a solution available within AM for such cases?