Is additive manufacturing (3D printing) really a disruptive technology?

The term “disruptive technology” is frequently (over) used when describing any new gadget or invention and the popular press’s description of additive manufacturing is no different. With a number of printer manufacturers targeting the consumer market, 3D printing has been hyped as a game changing technology, however, very little rigorous analysis has been undertaken in order to determine whether or not additive manufacturing can be accurately described as a disruptive technology. Rather than deferring to popular media hype, it is useful to refer to Clayton Christensen’s (who coined “disruptive technologies”) definition from “The Innovator’s Dilemma”:

According to Christensen’s framework, disruptive technologies generally have the following attributes:

  1. Simpler and cheaper – generally lower margins
  2. Typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. Leading firms’ most profitable customers don’t want, and indeed initially can’t use, products based on disruptive technologies

Attribute 1: Simpler and Cheaper

Certainly when examined as a full process for a single, select unit, additive manufacturing can be much simpler and cheaper than traditional manufacturing methodologies. The end-to-end procedure (design to physical product) enabled by additive manufacturing clearly represents a huge improvement over traditional manufacturing processes, where molds, multiple machines and/or assembly processes are needed. Commercial demonstration of this principle can be seen with GE’s LEAP jet engine fuel nozzle, offering reduction in manufacturing costs while greatly simplifying the overall manufacturing process, especially for prototyping.

Unfortunately, additive manufacturing’s ability to create simpler and cheaper products starts to fail when confronted with complexity and scale:

Complexity: Many of the products that permeate our lives are composed of a mix of materials – metals, plastics, semiconductors, ceramics, etc.  At the present time, most additive manufacturing processes do not allow for the incorporation of multiple material types, especially not those with very different processing conditions (example: soft plastics and hard metals).  So while separate pieces of a product can be individually produced using different additive manufacturing machines, the pieces still need to be assembled, limiting the simplification that additive manufacturing can offer.

Scale: Additive manufacturing can only be considered simpler and cheaper when considering singular or limited batch sizes.  When it comes to mass production, traditional manufacturing techniques cannot be rivaled.

For products or components that are not intended to be mass-produced, additive manufacturing offers a cheaper and simpler alternative.  As additive manufacturing technology improves and allows for increasing complexity in materials, attribute 1 of disruptive technologies will become more and more applicable.

Attribute 2: First commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets

Thus far, products derived from additive manufacturing have been directed at the aerospace, medical, defense and “makers” markets. The first three certainly do not qualify as insignificant markets, however, with more specificity, generally additive manufactured products are directed at very narrow sub-markets, such as artificial personalized medical replacements or small-run aerospace parts.

Analysis of the “makers” market is a bit more revealing: strong marketplaces for 3D printed products are emerging in the form of sub-spaces of pre-existing portals (examples: KickStarter, Etsy and even Amazon) as well as 3D printed-only spaces, such as Shapeways and i.materialise.  In particular, additive manufacturing has developed an interesting connection with KickStarter, which I will analyze in depth in a future post. Although dwarfed by the whole of the consumer market, these 3D printed product marketplaces represent an important step in the emergence of additive manufacturing as a truly disruptive technology.  As these marketplaces gain traction, so will the overall technology.

It remains to be seen if a strong marketplace will emerge for industrial/commercial additive manufacturing, in the same way it has started for the “makers” analogue.  This is another topic worth exploring in detail – I’ll tackle it in a future post.

Attribute 3: Leading firms’ most profitable customers can’t use the disruptive technology

As described earlier, additive manufacturing is certainly not a solution for mass production. Thus, customers of large manufacturing firms are unlikely to consider additive manufacturing techniques as a relevant options for production.

These attributes suggest that additive manufacturing could be a disruptive technology, however, additional aspects must be considered.

 Christensen further describes disruptive technologies in the following way:

“Disruptive technologies generally improve at a parallel pace with established ones – their trajectories do not intersect… (however, they) will ultimately intersect with market needs”[1]

Given this description, it is not surprising that additive manufacturing has made little impact in the mass production industry. Even as the speed of additive printers increases and the variety of materials that can be fabricated expands, it is unlikely that they will eclipse the capabilities found in mainstream manufacturing at scales necessary to supplant the incumbent technologies in the mass-production markets of today. This implies that for additive manufacturing to truly establish itself as a disruptive technology, an alternative market for production (different from today’s mass-production market focused on large-scale, capital-intensive, centralized production) must emerge. This leads to the following questions: a) what will such an alternative market look like and b) why would such a market develop? Possible answers are certainly linked to the discussion on marketplaces.

In order to help us identify along what key factors additive manufacturing and a complementary market might arise, one needs to consider additional attributes described by Christensen:

“First, the attributes that make disruptive products worthless in mainstream markets typically become their strongest selling points in emerging markets; and second, disruptive products tend to be simpler, cheaper, and more reliable and convenient than established products.”[2]

Christensen alludes to the fact that disruptive technologies compete along a hidden axis of performance. When plotted against traditional performance factors, a disruptive technology does not exceed the performance of incumbent methodologies, which is described in the earlier quote. This masks the fact that a disruptive technology exceeds performance along a third, hidden axis, which does not become important until the new market that relies on this performance attribute emerges. The fact that the disruptive technology is simpler, cheaper, or more reliable, decreases the barriers to user acquisition, making the disruptive technology the obvious choice in the new market.

For additive manufacturing to be classified as a disruptive technology, there must be a hidden axis on which the techniques outperform entrenched manufacturing methodologies, which will coincide with a key emerging market need:

  1. Time from concept to production – whereas traditional manufacturing processes may require the development of molds or specific tooling, additive manufacturing allows for a straightforward transition from digital file to fabrication. The delay is generally a function of printing and finishing time.
  2. Customizability – again, because of the requirements of mold-making or retooling, mass-production techniques do not engender themselves to singular (or even very small batch) customization, whereas additive manufacturing techniques inherently allow for customization on every print
  3. Localization – mass-production techniques generally require significant scale, due to large capital costs. Additionally, because pieces need to be made individually and subsequently assembled, they tend to also be very human labor intensive. These attributes encourage centralized, scaled facilities in areas where human labor is relatively abundant and cheap. Additive manufacturing does not require this scale and is not generally labor intensive. This suggests that additive manufacturing may lead to localized manufacturing, where economies of scale are not needed to offset large capital expenditures.

Rather than targeting any one specific attribute, for additive manufacturing to evolve into a truly disruptive technology in the manufacturing space, a market combining all three of these characteristics is likely needed. Such a market might be linked with socioeconomic pushes towards sustainability, as proposed by the Fab City movement, which suggests that cities of the future can become decentralized fabrication hubs supporting internal demand while importing and exporting products in digital form only.  Furthermore, as suggested by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers in their book, Resource Revolution”, additive manufacturing is poised to be an important player in a circular economy tuned towards resource efficiency.

So is it disruptive?

Unfortunately, only time will truly tell, but right now additive manufacturing certainly possesses many of the qualities of a disruptive technology.  For many processes, most notably prototyping or small batch using single material types, it introduces simplicity and lowers costs.  As the technology evolves, it must push these qualities to tackle increasing materials complexity and scale.  More than likely, these attributes will come with time.

The more difficult question is whether a large enough market for its products will emerge with the need for customizability, localization and speed from concept to production.  The growing marketplaces for 3D manufactured goods is encouraging, but a strong industrial/commercial market will need to blossom in parallel to the “maker movement”.

[1] Clayton Christensen, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” Harvard Business Review Press, Boston (2000) (Location 1193 of 4221 in Kindle Edition)

[2] Clayton Christensen, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” Harvard Business Review Press, Boston (2000) (Location 3478 of 4221 in Kindle Edition)