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3D printing is fuelling a digital revolution

The next digital revolution in Canada is an industrial one: The country is poised for a renaissance in manufacturing as 3D printing disrupts traditional economies of scale.

But this “fourth industrial revolution,” as outlined by Stephen Nigro, HP Inc.’s president of 3D printing, has many moving parts to form a “blended reality.” A number of different entrepreneurial players will participate in this digital revolution, as well—it’s not just 3D-printing players, be it large or small, who will play a role in this reality. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, connected factories, and robotics will be interwoven into the fabric spurred by the commercial and industrial 3D-printing boom, combining the physical and digital worlds.

HP expects the 3D-printing industry will disrupt and reinvent the CAD$16 trillion manufacturing sector and predicts 3D printing to grow at a 30 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR). By 2021, it will be a CAD$24 billion industry, with plastics expected to be the largest portion of the market, accounting for an estimated CAD$13 trillion in five years.

Increased investment

As the 3D-printing market evolves, it may be better to look as it as additive manufacturing, which combines new and old techniques to rapidly create products. As a larger firm, HP has heavily invested in 3D printing for additive manufacturing, unlike smaller niche players who’ve focused on 3D printing for consumers.

It also forecasts 3D printing to broadly impact work and daily life, as it will shorten and localize the supply chain. This digital revolution will see the shipping of digital designs and raw materials, rather than tangible goods. HP also expects this fourth industrial revolution to impact education, as the classroom must prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, while the on-demand printing of goods will also affect trade and taxation.

Previously, HP tried to avoid the moniker of “printing company,” but when it comes to 3D printing, it embraces the name by leveraging technology the company’s developed over decades as the leader in conventional paper printing. HP has developed massive ink jet printheads configured to handle finely powdered versions of the nylon plastics frequently used for 3D projects. For Canada, it’s an opportunity to reverse its fortunes in the slumping manufacturing sector, as commercial 3D printing technology has the potential to help manufacturers meet demand in real time.

This digital revolution will also enable manufacturing companies to be more nimble, as they maintain virtual inventories—you only need to print parts to support a just-in-time delivery model. This agility will improve customer satisfaction and reduce production costs. Manufacturers could move production to local printing centres to meet customer requests for customization that would not be easily or quickly done in a traditional manufacturing model.

Anticipating adoption

To date, 3D printing has been primarily used for producing detailed prototypes, and although it’s not yet ready for producing items en masse, advances in technology mean that final, usable products can be made cost effectively. There’s also room for large players and smaller startups, as well as public-private collaborations.

In fact, large companies may need smaller businesses if they want to capitalize on the rapidly innovating 3D-printing boom. For example, Walmart Canada turned to a small think tank to test the feasibility of customers designing and printing their own, unique holiday mementos at its new Ancaster, Ontario store in December. Additionally, HP Canada president Mary Ann Yule recently noted that we’ll first witness 3D printing adoption in consumer packaged goods, as well as in the aerospace, automotive, telecommunications, and health care industries.

Efforts are underway to help 3D printing in manufacturing meet its potential in Canada, including collaborative efforts between industry and government. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers promotes 3D printing as a way to help companies return home, as well as encourage manufacturers to build supply chains using mostly homegrown companies. Meanwhile, another initiative to provide grants to Canadian companies so they can develop new 3D printing applications is the SMART program, launched and managed by the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

Is your business ready for the 3D-printing revolution? If not, don’t fret—as long as you keep an eye on this evolving trend, you can stay one step ahead of the competition and know when it’s time to hop on the bandwagon.