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Case Study Information Technology for Managers Interactive Session: Technology Is 3-D Printing a Game-Changer?

  1. Describe the technologies used in 3-D printing. How does 3-D printing differ from CAD?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using 3-D printing?
  3. What kinds of businesses are most likely to benefit from 3-D printing? Why? Give 2 examples.

How could 3-D printing impact companies' supply chains and business models? Major knowledge work applications include CAD systems, virtual reality systems for simulation and modeling, and financial workstations. Computer-aided design (CAD) automates the creation and revision of designs, using computers and sophisticated graphics software. Using a more traditional physical design methodology, each design modification requires a mold to be made and a prototype to be tested physically. That process must be repeated many times, which is a very expensive and time-consuming process. Using a CAD workstation, the designer need only make a physical prototype toward the end of the design process because the design can be easily tested and changed on the computer. The ability of CAD software to provide design specifications for the tooling and manufacturing processes also saves a great deal of time and money while producing a manufacturing process with far fewer problems.

Figure 11.4 Requirements of knowledge work systems

Knowledge work systems require strong links to external knowledge bases in addition to specialized hardware and software.

For example, Ford Motor Company used a computer simulation to create an engine cylinder that came up with the most efficient design possible. Engineers altered that design to account for manufacturing constraints and tested the revised design virtually in models that used decades of data on material properties and engine performance. Ford then created the mold to make a real part that could be bolted onto an engine for further testing. The entire process took days instead of months and cost thousands of dollars instead of millions. CAD systems have provided similar benefits to Jaguar Land Rover, as described in the chapter-opening case.

CAD systems are able to supply data for 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which uses machines to make solid objects, layer by layer, from specifications in a digital file. 3-D printing is currently being used for producing prototypes and customized manufacturing work (see the Interactive Session on Technology).

Virtual reality systems have visualization, rendering, and simulation capabilities that go far beyond those of conventional CAD systems. They use interactive graphics software to create computer-generated simulations that are so close to reality that users almost believe they are participating in a real-world situation. In many virtual reality systems, the user dons special clothing, headgear, and equipment, depending on the application. The clothing contains sensors that record the user's movements and immediately transmit that information back to the computer. For instance, to walk through a virtual reality simulation of a house, you would need garb that monitors the movement of your feet, hands, and head. You also would need goggles containing video screens and sometimes audio attachments and feeling gloves so that you can be immersed in the computer feedback.

Interactive Session: Technology Is 3-D Printing a Game-Changer?

There's a lot of talk about 3-D printing and it is one of today's hottest new technologies. 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process for making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3-D printed object is achieved using additive processes in which an object is created by laying down successive layers of materials. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

A virtual design of the object is made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3-D modeling program. The software slices the model of the object into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers, each of which is a thinly-sliced horizontal cross-section of the final object. The software creates a digital file that instructs a 3-D printer how to create the object layer by layer, with no sign of the layering visible. The output is a single three-dimensional object.

There are several different ways in which 3-D printers build layers to create the final object. Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers (selective laser sintering and fused deposition modeling), while others lay liquid materials that are cured with different technologies (stereolithography).

Today's 3-D printers can handle materials including plastic, titanium, and human cartilage, and produce fully functional components, including batteries, transistors, LEDs, and other complex mechanisms. Costs have dropped dramatically, with basic 3-D printers for hobbyists selling as low as $250, although industrial 3-D printers may run up to $800,000.

Need a part for your washing machine? Right now, you'd order it from your repairman, who would get it from a distributor, who would have it shipped from China, where thousands of these parts were mass-produced at the same time, probably injection-molded from a very expensive mold. In the future, you might be able to 3-D print the part in your home, using a CAD file you downloaded. If you didn't have a 3-D printer, you could print it out at a local 3-D printing facility similar to Kinko's or transmit the CAD file over the Internet for printing by a cloud-based 3-D printing service such as Shapeways.

3-D printing eliminates the need for expensive customized tooling, using less material per object. With injection molding, companies must create a different physical mold for every different part they want to produce. If the specifications for a part change, they must create a new mold for the part. With 3-D printing there's no mold, just a computer model of the part that can be updated any time.

This was an advantage for Chris Milnes, who manufactures the Square Helper—a plastic clip the size of a quarter that holds a credit card reader in place on an iPhone or iPad. If Mr. Milnes had the clip made in China, it would have cost $6,000 for the tooling to build an injection mold, plus 25 to 30 cents per unit. Instead, he uses a MakerBot Replicator 2 purchased for $2,000, and the plastic for 3-D printing the reader costs 3 cents apiece. Using a 3-D printer also makes it much easier to adjust the part when Apple updates the iPhone. All Milnes has to do is to change a few lines of software. So far, Milnes has sold about 2,000 clips for $7.95 each.

Some say 3-D printing has potential to reshape manufacturing and even usher in a Third Industrial Revolution in which customizable one-off production supplants mass production. For some types of manufacturing work, this could be true, and there will be profound changes in some companies' business models and production locations. Don't expect a seismic shift, however.

It takes much more than pressing a button to create a part using 3-D printing. A 3-D printer is much more complicated to use than a desktop printer, with much more technical know-how required to operate the device and software. The outputs are much more specialized. A printer for metal can't print plastic and a printer for ABS plastic, for example, may not print any other type of plastic. Plastics are relatively straightforward to work with, but metals are more difficult.

Fashioning something using 3-D printing is extremely slow and cumbersome. It can take an entire day or longer for printouts to cool. 3-D printing doesn't scale well if you have to churn out thousands of items in a short time. A startup called Rest Devices was using 3-D printing to design and manufacture the Mimo, an infant's one piece outfit with a built-in sensor that lets parents monitor their newborns' breathing. When Babies "R" Us ordered 7,000 pieces, their MakerBot 3-D printer simply couldn't produce the items fast enough. Rest Devices then turned to traditional injection molding to make key plastic parts. A part comes out of injection molding every 20-30 seconds, whereas the 3-D printer could only produce one in 15-20 minutes.

It looks like 3-D printing is better suited for jobs involving complex designs or limited production runs. 3-D printing is very useful for helping designers test ideas and speed product development, not replacing large-scale manufacturing. For example, Ford Motor Company is using 3-D printing to test parts of new cars. An engine prototype printed from sand-based material cost $3000 to make and is available in 4 days. A traditional prototype used to require months to create and cost half-million dollars. Nike uses 3-D printers to create multi-colored prototypes of shoes. The company used to spend thousands of dollars on a physical prototype and wait weeks for it to be produced. Now, the prototype cost is only in the hundreds of dollars. Changes can be made instantly on the computer and the prototype reprinted on the same day.

Some companies are using 3-D printers for short-run or custom manufacturing, where the printed objects are not prototypes, but the actual end user product. GE Aviation using 3-D printers to manufacture more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its Leap jet engines. (There are 19 nozzles per engine.) Rather than assembling finely-honed metal parts, GE printed the engine's fuel nozzles layer by layer. Earlier fuel nozzles had 20 different parts, whereas the 3-D printed version is a single piece optimized to spray fuel into engines. The new version is 25 percent lighter than current models, and is capable of lasting five times longer before servicing. Transforming multiple parts into a single part results in a final assembly that is less susceptible to errors.

Sources: Lyndsey Gilpin, "3-D printing: 10 companies using it in ground-breaking ways, TechRepublic, March 26, 2014; Peter S. Green, "3-D Printing's Promise-and Limits," Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2014; Daniel Cohen, Matthew Sargeant, and Ken Somers, "3-D Printing Takes Shape," McKinsey Quarterly, January 2014; Alexander Eule," Beware 3-D Printing!" Barrons, March 8, 2014; Tim Laseter and Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat, "A Skeptic's Guide to 3-D Printing," Strategy+Business, Winter 2013.

Case Study Questions
  1. Describe the technologies used in 3-D printing. How does 3-D printing differ from CAD?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using 3-D printing?
  3. What kinds of businesses are most likely to benefit from 3-D printing? Why? Give 2 examples.
  4. How could 3-D printing impact companies' supply chains and business models?

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