Additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — plays a role in everything from product prototyping to volume production of finished parts, supporting optimization of supply networks and underpinning new business models. But traditional manufacturing workflows weren’t designed with 3D printing in mind, and carelessly forcing this technology into established processes may do more harm than good.

My new report, Additive Manufacturing Moves Out Of The Lab And Onto The Factory Floor, was published this week. I’ll be discussing some of its findings in a client webinar on 29 March, which will also be available to replay after the event.

From big things like Amsterdam’s stainless steel bridge to small things like Leiden University’s microswimmers, 3D printing is getting a reputation for the weird and the wacky. More practically:

  • Cars: Premium car brands use 3D printing to reduce the weight of modern cars and to deliver out-of-stock parts to owners of their classic cars.
  • Trains: A big European train builder prints spares for trains running in geographies weeks away from their factories.
  • Industrial machines: Industrial OEMs like GE and Siemens print tens of thousands of parts for the turbines used in aircraft and power stations to reduce weight and extend operating life.

In factories and repair shops around the world, engineers print simple jigs and fixtures to help them complete routine tasks: Dutch airline KLM recycles the plastic bottles from its passenger flights to feed the printers that their ground teams use for these quick jobs.

Like many of the emerging technologies we track, 3D printing is not the answer to every problem. It’s not going to replace milling machines and molding machines and presses and human (or robot) welders. But, implemented smartly, it’s another useful tool in the toolbox. It augments these existing engineering processes, and manufacturing leaders need to pay attention and work out when, how, and where to slot printers and print-ready workflows into their operations. The 3D printer is good for so much more than just printing prototypes in the design studio, and those who fail to exploit it risk being left behind. Read the report, or watch the webinar, to learn more about Forrester’s perspective on the growing role of 3D printing.

As always, if you have your perspectives to share, please schedule a briefing and tell us all about them. If you’re a Forrester client and want to discuss (or challenge) our thinking on this topic, please schedule an inquiry.