3D printing has been around for many years, but it's only now starting to reveal its potential to transform other industries besides manufacturing. The growth of 3D printing in the enterprise is set to create a new set of challenges for CIOs, as IT organisations grapple with new sources of data.
On the consumer side, 3D printing is unlikely to become a mainstream technology in the near future, Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere says.
"From a consumer perspective, 3D printers cannot do anything near what some of the hype says [they] can do and it's a much more complex process than what a 2D printer is, [so] we think it could be easily 10 or more years before it becomes mainstream," the analyst says.
However, 3D printing is already well understood within the enterprise, Basiliere adds. Even though adoption has been slow, enterprise use cases exist and will continue to drive 3D printing growth.
"The market penetration is only about 1 to 5 per cent, but it will be well accepted in mainstream within about five years," he says. Gartner predicts worldwide shipments of 3D printers will nearly double by 2015, driving down the cost of the technology.
3D printing is a data-heavy technology, and capturing, managing and analysing this data will be the role of enterprise IT, says Jason Bender, partner at Deloitte Digital.
"There might be a significant amount more data that can be captured through the 3D printer, sensors and the ERP system," Bender says.
"With 3D printing you have the opportunity to observe the manufacture of the part during the process over time and can actually do a lot more optical measurement [than with conventional manufacturing]," he adds.
"You can start to capture lots of data about every production. For example, if you make 100,000 units you can record lots of data points about how the part was made, temperature of the head that's printing, the components of the material, the batch numbers, etc.
"By performing analytics on the logged data matched with other production information -- date/time, operator, environmental data, production yield, defects and field data -- manufacturers could identify any batch problems for further analysis, rectification or recall."
With 3D printing, an engineer has the potential to do more careful monitoring of parts as they are being made, Bender says. This means there are fewer chances of defects.
"With 3D printing you have the opportunity to observe the manufacture of the part during the process over time and can actually do a lot more optical measurement.
"Sensors can record information such as temperature, pressure, humidity which will affect the solidification of the part. The process can be recorded with video cameras for review and analysis. And images can be captured throughout the process and compared with baseline templates to ensure the part is to specification, and that there are missing/malformed structures.
"For example, if you were sintering titanium powder to make an aircraft part, you can detect if the laser has caused the alloy to overheat as it's spent too long in a particular location, as the way the metal will solidify will be different if it was heated to a different temperature. It's always those cooling stresses in any part which generate weak points or points of failure."
General Electric is using sensors and big data technology to detect temperature anomalies while parts are being made. The company is using the "in-process inspection technology" for its microscopic weld pool manufacturing that's moving at hundreds of millimetres per second. Even a slight diversion could result in a massive defect. According to GE, it can turn "terabytes of raw data to megabytes of useful information", increase production speeds by 25 per cent and reduce post-build inspection time by 25 per cent.
Enterprise use of 3D printing means CIOs and their IT organisations will need to be deal with even more data: Both data that can drive improvements to production processes and the data necessary to enable production in the first place. For example, Basiliere says CIOs will have to securely store and make available to multiple users of computer-aided design (CAD) files.
"IT may not be doing the design or physically creating the item, but they do have to provide that back bone support for all the data that is being used, supporting the CAD software," he says.
"Also, enabling the printers to run on the network, and ensure the network is secure from people exporting those proprietary designs or hacking into the company and seeking those designs.
"Then you are going to have to store it, because the theory now is that we are enabling long tail manufacturing. By doing so, it means you need to have the CAD file securely archived somewhere so that when there's a need later on for a one off or short-term production of that item it can be looked up and retrieved and printed."
Bender says data logged during the manufacturing process could potentially be quite large depending on how the types of data collected, sampling frequency and the number of parts made. However, he adds that models for 3D printing are simpler than those used for traditional injection moulding, and therefore require less disk space to store.
"In traditional injection moulding, mass manufacture of complex shapes, everything has to have on the sides of it a taper or a slope that allows the part to fall out of the mould after it has been made. That actually makes your model a lot more mathematically complex and makes for larger data storage requirements.
"Because 3D printed parts do not need to release from a mould, the sides of a part do not require a taper, greatly simplifying the 3D model therefore taking significantly less space than a model intended for injection moulding."
3D printing to transform retail, healthcare
3D printing is starting to make its way into a broader set of industries besides industrial-type manufacturing. The retail and healthcare industries in particular are tapping into the technology to print highly customised products.
Neiman Marcus, a major upscale retailer in the United States, recently announced an agreement with Shapeways to produce 3D printed customised jewellery. An order is made through NeimanMarcus.com, then Shapeways prints and ships the product from its Long Island City factory and the customer receives the item within three weeks.
"3D printing enables a company to go from design for manufacturing, to manufacturing of the design. So you go from the compromises that are inherent in designing for a high-volume manufacturing process, compromises that may take you away from what the marketer feels is the ideal look and feel of the item, to the ability to manufacture the ideal design of one custom item," Basiliere says.
Nike launched its first 3D printed football shoe base plate this year, offering a premium product targeted towards professional sports players. "You are able to do something with 3D printing that was not possible before and you can redesign a product altogether differently," Basiliere says.
Disney World in Florida is producing miniature figurines of customers by scanning a customer's head and 3D printing it onto a Stormtrooper body to sell as a souvenir.
The healthcare sector is experimenting with using 3D printing to produce medical implants, printing with bio-compatible plastics rated for use inside the human body.
"For example, you could scan somebody's ear, remove part of the cartilage, print some material that replaces that same shape, embedding it with electronics for your hearing aid," Bender says.
"They can use stem cells as one of the base materials in the printing process for manufacturing skin. There are universities working with the current 3D printing technologies to print replacement organs, such as kidneys from the donor's stem cells.
"It won't be too far before things like bionic ears or implants are internal or under the skin."
Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett