A Manufacturing Renaissance: How 3D Printing Can Bring Back Local

Canada is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance as 3D printing technology is spurring a wave of entrepreneurial thinking and innovation amongst manufacturers—large and small—across the country. Canadian manufacturers who haven’t investigated commercial 3D printing solutions should take note.

In the past, 3D printing has been used primarily for producing detailed prototypes. But new systems have come along capable of making superior quality functional parts up to 10 times faster at half the cost of previous generation 3D printers.

There’s a massive, untapped opportunity in the industrial 3D printing market. As the technology gets better, while costs go down, the solutions available are becoming a more attractive option for manufacturers looking to design and produce prototypes and finished goods.

Commercial 3D printing technology holds the key to reversing a decades-long manufacturing industry slump and making “made in Canada” a more commonly heard phrase. And we might be headed toward this digital manufacturing revolution soon than you think.

When done right, 3D printing can help manufacturers meet demand in real-time and lower inventory costs by enabling them to maintain virtual inventories and print parts only as needed. This “just-in-time” (JIT) delivery model would allow manufacturers to move production to local printing centres and be much more agile at satisfying customer customization requests.

As a result, many public-private collaborations are popping up across Canada to encourage 3D printing adoption in industries such as aerospace, automotive, consumer packaged goods, telecommunications and healthcare.

For example, the $18.9-million SMART program, administered by the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, provides generous research grants to Canadian companies that develop new 3D printing applications. Similarly, Take Manufacturing Back, sponsored by Canada’s Society of Manufacturing Engineers, is promoting 3D printing as a way of attracting aggressive reshoring while encouraging manufacturers to build supply chains using mostly Canadian companies.

For 3D printing to become mainstream, collaborative efforts such as these will need to continue and accelerate.

But perhaps even more importantly, 3D printing leaders need to take an open platform approach to drive software innovation and standards such as 3MF, an improved 3D printing file format.

This is something Canadian manufacturers need to know about.

With third-party suppliers working in an open platform, we will see a rapid expansion of the palette of materials and colours that manufacturers can use and also to the ability to print parts with embedded information such as invisible traces or codes. This could give manufacturers the unprecedented ability to design and create highly customized and highly functional parts digitally using 3D printing technology and totally reinvent the supply chain in the process.

If mass customization isn’t enough, perhaps a more streamlined and sustainable supply chain will do the trick?

It’s predicted that 3D printing could lead to a global energy and CO2 emissions reduction of 5 per cent by 2020 as manufacturers wouldn’t have to burn as much fossil fuel when using the JIT model. 3D printing technology has the ability to open up the possibility of a totally different supply chain, run with lower costs and a lower carbon footprint.

The materials and energy it takes for manufacturers to create new parts will be harnessed into electronic design files that can be printed on-demand, anywhere in the world. And countless numbers of spare parts will never physically need to trucked and flown to their destination. In these new, transformative supply chains, many spare parts might not even need to exist, which could translate to huge savings on warehousing costs.

Several major companies such as Nike, BMW, Johnson & Johnson, Jabil and Siemens have already started along the road to reinventing their manufacturing operations making headlines with plans to use the technology for prototyping and production.

There is little doubt that 3D printing adoption is heating up, in part, because of efforts such as this.  According to a UPS study, the worldwide 3D printing market is expected to triple to $US21 billion by 2020. Two-thirds of global manufacturers already use some form of 3D printing, and 25 per cent plan to adopt the technology at some point, the study found.

Additionally, a Deloitte Canada study predicts that the next decade promises to drive rapid innovation made possible by 3D printing.

But manufacturers don’t need to wait a decade.

Technologies are hitting the market today that are already production ready. The massive opportunity to improve processes, enter new markets and grow is here now. The next industrial revolution in Canadian manufacturing is just around the corner.

Mary Ann Yule is the President of HP Canada.