Friday, April 27, 2012

Can 3D Printing Redefine the Automotive Industry? An Alternate Future...

The post has embedded links to interesting videos and information. )

3D printing has been hailed as a technology which could change the way we do manufacturing. 3D printing along with stereo-lithography and similar technologies, growing at CAGR of 26%, are expected to reach $5.2 billion by 2020. The technology is capable of making complex metal parts, intricate mechanisms, civil construction components to even food items. The Star Trek's Replicator device may be well around the corner. Automotive industry is a leading user and consumes 17.5% of total commercial 3D printing services, second to consumer products/electronics. Present application by auto companies is limited to large size 3D printers for rapid prototyping in Product Development. However, with dropping prices (personal 3D printers costing around few thousand dollars) and maturing ecosystem (Machine builders, CAD S/W providers, Designers, Makers, Aggregators & users), 3D printing is poised to become mainstream and a game changer. Possibilities are endless for automotive industry. Let's explore some of the potential futuristic scenarios:
 - Mass Customization: Imagine a buyer in front of a large touch screen, trying out various combinations of bumper, rear view mirror, headlights, spoiler, dashboards, steering wheels and other interior/exterior styling parts on a basic car frame. A dealer rep assisting him to further nip & tuck the designs. As soon as buyer confirms his choices, the 3D printing machine at dealer starts making those parts. Next day, the buyer walks out of the showroom with a car customized to his tastes and unique on roads. Is it possible to provide such service? Yes! 3D printers are capable of producing complex shapes in various colors & materials. Does such service makes business sense? Of Course! customization is 30 percent of what draws a person to a brand. Cost of producing cars that do not meet customer requirements is $80 bil/year for car manufacturers

DIY Personalization: Imagine a car enthusiast designing a sporty spoiler for his car. He has the attachment frame in the CAD software and builds the rest of the design on top of it. He also refers to some Off-the-shelf designs for ideas. Once done, he clicks the print button and his personal 3D printer gets on to work. If his 3D printer cannot manage the dimensions, he sends the design to a nearby vendor who prints it and delivers it in few hours. This new spoiler is his third in last one year. And his next dream project is a cool dashboard. Is it possible? Yes! 3D printers are increasingly becoming affordable. Commercial paper printer manufacturers are now making 3D printers. One can imagine a 'Knight Rider' car or a 'Ghost Rider' bike running on the roads. 

Spares & Service: 3D printers can also be used to print spares and tools. Its not that far-fetched with similar application in marine transportation being explored. Repair centers and even consumers can print spares & tools on demand. We also have 3D scanners which can scan a tool along with its movable parts (like an adjustable wrench) and replicate it in a 3D printer. Only a limited stock of critical spares will be required in future.

Crowd Sourcing Product Design: Traditional product design relies on market feedback from customers. 3D printing will enable customers to design the product for companies. The guess work and gamble on market research will be eliminated. A company can crowd source product designs from prospective customers and adopt them. As consumers dream up new ideas and design, the product innovation will be prolific and dynamic.  

3D printing will enable automotive companies to address long tail market. However, there are wider implications. For instance, 3D printing will :
  • Empower auto consumers like never before: Only imagination is the limit to extent of personalization we could see. It will unleash new ways for consumers to make a personal statement through 'my ride'.  
  • Disrupt the automotive value chain and roles: New players like 3D part Designers & Makers will enter the value chain. Much of manufacturing activities will shift from OEM & Suppliers to the downstream Dealers & Consumers. Role of an Auto OEM will go beyond product design & manufacturing to include aggregation & orchestration.
  • Throw up Socio-Legal Challenges: How does one manage IP issues, Design safety, Accountability (for injuries/damages due to faulty parts) in a democratized design and manufacturing? New policies & regulations will have to be drawn up for the same.

When and to what extent the afore mentioned scenarios will materialize, no one can predict. However, one can confidently expect that 3D printing will become mainstream. A strategic roadmap to leverage 3D printing will enable auto companies to not only stay ahead but also influence the market and the industry. As Peter Drucker said 'The best way to predict your future is to create it'. 

1 comment: