A digital 3D printing business model allows increased product performance and real-time individualized series production without assembly and without warehousing. 3D printing speeds up the digitization of industrial business models. The question is no longer whether, but how and when to implement a 3D printing business model.

3D printing has for decades been the standard technology in rapid prototyping. Now it is acceleratingly used for rapid manufacturing. Some examples:

  • The engineering company AUMAT in Solingen manufactures a growing proportion of functional parts of its machines in 3D printing. The vertical integration has tended to increase.
  • The spare parts supplier MEYLE in Hamburg manufactures classic car parts in 3D printing.
  • The engineering company MACK in Bretten offers small to medium series in 3D printing.
  • The Swiss SONOVA as all major manufacturers of hearing aids switched production to 3D printing in less than two years.
  • TOYOTA together with the 3D printing specialist MATERIALISE has printed a small series of prototypes of a 7kg lightweight car seat in bionic structure.
  • LOCAL MOTORS has announced the first of several starts of production of affordable, printed cars with electric drive for 2016.

This changes business models. The following patterns are recognizable today:

  • Product definition, design and production are subject to a disruptive innovation with radically shortened processes. Linked to this is the ongoing entry of new, more focused 3D printing startups.
  • Already today 3D printing substitutes conventional production. Suitable applications are definable.
  • A global market of interchangeable, ubiquitous production capacity grows. Examples are SHAPEWAYS, I.MATERIALISE and 3D HUBS (7 Theses on the Revolution of Production).
  • The intangible product definition with idea, design and business plan will be implemented via digital service platforms and local production. Examples are MICROSOFT / NETFABB, I.MATERIALISE, 3DPRINTEROS, STAPLES, THINGIVERSE.
  • Five market drivers determine the rapid transformation: Falling investment needs (for example, by FORMLABS), increasing output (CARBON3D), growing versatility (INDMATEC), shorter process lead time and increasing process capability and control.

If a company does not want to wait until a digital 3D printing business model besets its own business, it will plan and control the how and when of implementation of a 3D printing business model. This requires review of product definitions and value chains. Target is to define, design, and implement specific technologies, product innovations, business model, business plan with improvement in earnings, and break-even window.

The selection of the appropriate 3D printing technologies is influenced by the fast-paced technology dynamics, overstimulating by diversity. A technology portfolio establishes order for the next two to three years. Often technology trends and product lifecycles require additional, very long-term technology and product roadmaps to timely initiate advanced development.

For the next two to three years 3D printing applications can be defined as feasible if they fit to characteristics as follows:

  • Single production to medium volume production
  • High material waste in terms of function
  • Complex geometry
  • Complex conventional assembly
  • Customized function
  • Low inventory turnover
  • Delivery pressure
  • High value density

Applications with other characteristics will be profitable later and therefore positioned on the roadmaps at later dates.

If you strive for product innovations, then the product targets should be geared not only to customer benefits and USP, but also to efficiency limits. For example, 3D printing in conjunction with bionic and distributed compliant design allows the minimum use of materials.

If you strive for process innovations, then the process targets should be aligned with the wasteless value-adding performance. Wasteless value-adding performance is often only 5% to 25% of the total process performance.

Innovations can be legally protected by patents. Target conflicts offer rich potential for patents. Examples of conflicting targets are product performance and cost, if they are solved by a methodical invention instead of priorities and compromises.

The break-even window for 3D printing is calculated by comparing conventional production with the 3D printing. However uncertain premises for cost drivers of 3D printing are usually hidden therein. Dates often seem arbitrary and at the expense of change through 3D printing. Also sensitivity analysis does not reduce this uncertainty of the break-even driven by the variety of uncertain cost drivers. Only a statistical variation forecast for the breakeven window driven by the few major cost drivers reduces uncertainty.

Now the digital 3D printing business model can be defined. Ingredients are, for example, the particular technology and material selection, product definitions, vertical integration, the processes for product engineering, order processing, rights management, payment and marketing as well as the periods of implementation. The processes can be largely digitized by databases, web services, and apps.

We offer you advise to implement 3D printing timely and economically.