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Baby Great Lakes. Beech D Bellanca Model Bowers Fly-Baby. Bowers Namu II. Call Air. Cessna UC T Consolidated Vultee BT Corben Baby Ace. Culver Cadet. Rather than offering customers different versions of a product, this model involves selling a 3-D-printed body with interchangeable modules for insertion. It applies mainly to electronic devices, which can mean everything from cars to fighter jets and drones.
So far this approach has been used only for military hardware and some niche automobiles, but it has significant potential—which Facebook, for one, has realized. It bought Nascent Objects, an additive start-up, to create modular versions of its virtual reality headsets and other hardware. Google gave up on such a phone a few years ago, but Moduware, an Australian company, has developed software to help smartphone manufacturers design the base units. Moduware could profit from making the modules used in products designed with its software. Traditional manufacturers in a range of areas already offer modular products.
But 3-D-printed products have two advantages. First, additive allows customization of the base unit. Second, and more important, that unit can be made in a completely new way, with antennae, wiring, and circuits printed directly onto or into its body. This reduces assembly costs, increases opportunities for miniaturization, and creates space for additional electronic components to be integrated into the product in ways that conventional modular production methods cannot manage.
The main competitive challenge here is deciding what to embed in the base unit and what to place in the modules, which affects pricing and product versatility. Boeing is using additive to build supports shaped like a honeycomb for airplane fuselages. The intricate structure of the supports makes these load-bearing parts just as strong as the conventional equivalents but with much less material—thereby significantly reducing weight and fuel consumption. Adidas uses CLIP printers to make strong, supple, lightweight lattice structures for the midsoles of running shoes, which are too complex to be made with conventional technology.
It expects to print , pairs in ; , in ; and eventually millions a year. These midsoles will absorb the impact of running better than conventional ones do. With new design software emerging, additive manufacturing can now restructure materials at the micro level to improve properties such as porosity, strength, durability, elasticity, and rigidity. The main challenge here is simply the human imagination.
If so, mass complexity may expand far beyond high-performance products. And new software from Autodesk, Dassault, and others means that product developers may not even have to do the thinking. This software allows developers to specify certain attributes and then leave it to the computer to generate a design that will optimize performance and cost, overcoming trade-offs that have stymied human designers.
Automobiles, for example, could be made both safer and lighter. The technology is still emerging in this area, but it could become a game changer. Take video screens. Conventional manufacturing processes for OLED screens waste a lot of expensive light-emitting electrochemical materials. Printers now on the market handle these materials more precisely and thereby produce lower-cost, higher-performance screens.
Additive-made OLED screens for cell phones and other handheld devices are everywhere; television manufacturers, interested in joining in, are conducting pilot projects for mass-producing TV screens with these printers. Mass standardization is possible even for low-tech products. Cosyflex, a 3-D printing system made by Tamicare, produces textiles by spraying various mixtures of polymers and natural fibers onto a moving platform. This fully automated system can produce finished goods at lower cost than conventional production can, even at scale.
Tamicare is still commercializing its technology, but the results it has seen to date are promising. Additive reduces all those. The main competitive challenge here is likely to be how much to specialize 3-D printers for these products. Specialization can help achieve the efficiencies needed for mass standardization, but it may increase risk by restricting companies to certain industries.
These six business models are not mutually exclusive—a company might find value in both greater variation and greater complexity. The nozzles are complex combinations of many parts, and each kind of jet engine needs a different shape of nozzle.
So GE uses additive to make dozens of versions in medium quantities. To better understand the preferences of its customers, Adidas is considering moving its manufacturing closer to them and perhaps even locating some of it within retail stores. Here are some ways it can be used against rivals that rely on conventional production:.
You could use additive to proactively expand your product line and prevent any openings. Hershey seems to be following this strategy with its recent investment in additive. Although it is the dominant player in the U. Hershey is also hoping that its new chocolate printers become so easy to use that it can sell them to restaurants, bakeries, and pastry shops—thereby blocking rivals that might try to enter the American market through those channels.
Suppose your company is struggling to compete with the dominant player in your industry, which offers only a few standard products. The only way to compete is to change the game. With additive, your company can cheaply produce variations on the standard product and determine whether customers are interested in them. If you attract enough interest, you can adopt one of the variation-based business models. As you add more variety to your offerings, you might draw so many customers away from the market leader that it will have to scale down, and its margins will collapse.
Even if the leader sees the danger, it will struggle to respond, because the importance of achieving scale economies by making standard products is entrenched in its mindset. You might still decide to go with additive and focus on just a few segments—again with a variation-based business model. You might be able to restrict your rival to its current markets by preempting its growth opportunities.
If not, your company could still profitably coexist with it by using your product variety and niches to avoid direct competition. A powerful value chain is hard to beat, but additive can change the game by creating an entirely new supply chain for materials and parts.
This is especially true with the mass-complexity business model, which allows your company to create new versions of products with fewer parts and different materials. A similar logic applies to distribution, because additive allows your company to build smaller factories close to customers. Some companies even have mobile additive factories—printers in a truck that can quickly move to a customer in need.
This dynamic can insulate you against supply and distribution risks, which are rising because of increasing protectionism. If a specific part or material suddenly becomes much more expensive—owing to tariffs, natural disasters, or geopolitical tensions—you can redesign the product to use less of it.
Or you can reallocate production to a safer site merely by transferring design files to a different additive facility. This approach is most effective when your rival is forced to depend on long, geographically and technically complex supply or distribution chains. One way to change the game is to move to adjacent or completely new markets.
When ideas or opportunities appear in either place, you can use additive to develop a new product, test the market, modify the product to improve sales, and gain first-mover advantage quickly and less expensively. Additive makes it easier to take an exploratory approach, because it can yield product shapes and structures beyond those currently imagined. And you can invest the profits from a new market to compete better in your existing market. This approach is risky, but it can be a strong choice for ambitious, entrepreneurial companies. Coupled with a powerful software platform, additive manufacturing enables companies to diversify much more widely.
For example, in GE built a remarkable factory in Pune, India. Previously every GE plant had been dedicated to serving a single division, such as aviation, health care, or power generation. But because Pune relies on 3-D printers, it can make parts for multiple divisions, which allows it to keep its capacity-utilization rate higher than if it were serving just one business. If jet sales are booming, Pune devotes much of its production to parts for jet engines.
But if that business slows, and demand for renewable power takes off, those production lines start making wind turbines. A conventional plant would find it too expensive and time-consuming to make the switch. Encouraging companies to digitize and innovate by adding new technologies is a good thing. But some versions of Industry 4. That could be a bad thing, because it consigns additive manufacturing to a largely supporting role of prototyping and providing a few specialized parts. Factories with heavy investments in conventional equipment will struggle to customize products, make complex parts, reduce assembly, and adjust production to changing market demand.
Consequently, companies that embrace Industry 4. Many Industry 4. The Pune plant relies mostly on a mass-segmentation business model for its diverse products, but as it moves along the learning curve, it may start to employ mass complexity as well. To fully realize them, the divisions will need to collaborate. GE may not be a conventional conglomerate much longer.
We need a new name to describe a diversified manufacturer that combines additive with software platforms to achieve operational synergies across the entire company. They might focus on consumer durables, metal parts, or plastic industrial goods. But that will still provide much wider scope than anything Wall Street currently tolerates. As companies learn to exploit the full potential of additive, diversification may even become a strategic imperative, ushering in a new era of competition among giant industrial companies.
Many companies are intrigued by the potential of additive manufacturing but wary of the risks. At most they use it to make prototypes and a few low-volume niche products. Now is the time to take it seriously as an option for large-scale commercial production. Companies should move off the sidelines, get familiar with the new techniques, and explore how they might alter the competitive landscape.
Additive has the potential to shake up not just individual industries but the manufacturing sector as a whole. Eventually a technology that engineers once mocked for its slowness may become a dominant force in the economy. Wes L. Richard A. In Brief The Advances Additive manufacturing technology has progressed, and its supplier ecosystem and the materials available have expanded.
The Opportunities The technology is finally ready to go mainstream: It is competitive with conventional manufacturing; can produce complex, high-performance structures; and can easily switch from making one item to making another. The Implications Companies should consider new business models and strategies to exploit the opportunities and defend themselves against rivals that use 3-D printing.