It's not every day a technology like 3-D printing comes along and offers the potential to completely revolutionize how the world makes just about anything. While we're still many years away from having our very own "Star Trek" Replicators, 3-D printing is already being put to good use at General Electric (NYSE:GE), Ford (NYSE:F), Nike (NYSE:NKE), and even Victoria's Secret (NYSE:LB).
3-D printing 101
On a high level, 3-D printing is an "additive" manufacturing process that creates an object using a repetitive layer-by-layer building process. Depending on the type of 3-D printing technology and materials used, the applications can vary greatly. Dental implants, hip replacements, airplane parts, and even human tissue are all in the realm of possibility. No matter the application, you can still think of 3-D printing as the opposite of "subtractive" manufacturing, which starts with a piece of raw material that gets cut down into its final shape.
One of the major selling points of 3-D printing is that the process doesn't require any tooling, which allows designers to think more creatively during the design process. If a designer can dream up an extremely complicated design, it can usually be printed.
The first 3-D printer was invented in 1983, and the technology has been helping designers prototype objects ever since. Before 1983, the concept of rapid prototyping didn't exist, and it used to take months and thousands of dollars to prototype anything. At the time, 3-D printing was considered a game changer because it significantly reduced product development lead times, saving time and money along the way.
Over the years, 3-D printed prototypes have proven to be such an excellent time and money saver that making them remains the most popular way the technology is being used today. Thanks to advances in 3-D printing speed and capabilities, businesses can iterate designs faster than ever before, giving designers even more time to improve their designs. At the end of the day, this can give a business a very real competitive advantage in the marketplace.
How Nike and Ford benefit from 3-D printing
Nike recently put 3-D printing to the test during Super Bowl XLVIII when it debuted the world's first and only game-day cleat "inspired by and developed from 3-D printing." The goal was to create a cleat that was less susceptible to slipping off the line, and with the help of 3-D printing, Nike was able to significantly reduce the cleat's development time. Using traditional prototyping processes would've taken three years, but 3-D printing's ability to rapidly iterate in a matter of hours helped reduce the same development process down to six months.
Like Nike, Ford uses 3-D printing to bring products to market faster and to improve the quality of designs. The automotive giant has been involved with 3-D printing since the 1980s and recently 3-D printed its 500,000th part -- an engine cover for the all-new 2015 Mustang.
Ultimately, Ford envisions a day where you can order a 3-D printed replacement part for your vehicle and have it installed at your local service center. Going forward, Ford will be experimenting with different 3-D printing technologies in hopes to expand the role 3-D printing plays in the automotive industry.
What Victoria's Secret has to do with 3-D printing
During the Victoria's Secret 2013 annual fashion show, supermodel Lindsay Ellingson sported a look made possible only with 3-D printing. With the help of a 3-D scanner, Ellingson's one-of-a-kind snow angel wings, corset, and headpiece were 3-D printed to her exact proportions. This application could eventually lead to a day where one-size-fits-all gives way to custom-tailored everything.
A promising future
In today's manufacturing world, 3-D printing may seem limited to prototyping, but tomorrow offers far greater possibilities. GE plans on investing "tens of millions" toward advancing 3-D printing technology to better compete against conventional manufacturing in terms of speed and scale. In the coming years, the industrial giant has aspirations to 3-D print 45,000 fuel nozzles a year to be used in its upcoming leap jet engine. This "project" has made GE one of the few companies out there that's really pushing the limits of 3-D printing in order to make it a more viable manufacturing option. Considering the massive potential savings at stake, it's likely only a matter of time until GE cracks this code and 3-D printing plays a bigger role in the finished goods manufacturing space.
Industry watchdog Wohlers Associates believes the 3-D printing industry was worth $2.2 billion in 2012 and expects it to grow by nearly 20% a year to eventually become a $10.8 billion industry in 2021. A few decades from now, it's hard to say just how important 3-D printing will be in our lives, but one highly regarded 3-D printing insider made a comment to suggest that 3-D printing could eventually be worth trillions.
Wilfried Vancraen, the CEO of Belgium-based Materialise was quoted saying how 3-D printing could eventually represent up to 30% of the manufacturing industry. Thinking in terms of worldwide manufacturing GDP, this would imply that the 3-D printing economy could one day be worth more than $3 trillion in worldwide GDP. Whether or not this claim holds any water is really anyone's guess, but it certainly puts into perspective just how small the 3-D printing industry is today compared to the worldwide manufacturing industry.
Putting it all together
When industry leaders like Nike, Ford, GE, and Victoria's Secret embrace 3-D printing, the world starts taking notice. Beyond what I've already outlined, 3-D printing also promises to drastically reduce inventory kept on hand, to localize manufacturing, and to offer a far more sustainable manufacturing solution compared to conventional methods. Out of fear of being left behind, it's probably just a matter of time until the manufacturing community at large decides 3-D printing is the only way to remain competitive.
Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, General Electric Company, and Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.