Print-Based Economy June 2010
Printing technologies offer various potential advantages in manufacturing of products, from printed circuit boards to solar cells to three-dimensional (3-D) printing of prototypes and simple products. Recently, manufacturers and researchers are having success in printing radio-frequency-identification (RFID) tags, sensors, and batteries and in 3-D bioprinting of artificial organs. PolyIC (Fürth, Germany) prints RFID tags. Blue Spark Technologies (Westlake, Ohio) prints carbon-zinc batteries to power smart cards, RFID tags, and interactive packaging for a wide range of industries. Printed glucose sensors are available from various manufacturers. Organovo (San Diego, California) recently announced successful bioprinting of artificial veins. Some developers have printed food products from inexpensive 3-D printers. Printing of tissues and artificial organs could become a sizable, high-value-added industry. Various market-research firms expect that printed electronics, alone, will be a tremendous market opportunity within 20 years. Together, advanced-printing industries may constitute an entire economy of their own, which has the potential to operate differently than the traditional manufacturing economy does.
Advanced-printing industries may constitute an entire economy of their own, which has the potential to operate differently than the traditional manufacturing economy does.
Printing is an additive process that allows the manufacturer to place valuable functional materials precisely where the customer needs them to function and typically in a manner that does not waste material and, therefore, lowers the cost of manufacturing. Manufacturers use traditional screen printing, offset printing, and ink-jet printing to apply new kinds of materials. Dip-pen and nanoimprint technologies can place nanoparticles with high precision. Although many materials on which the traditional industrial economy relies are not printable, recent developments in nanomaterials (such as carbon nanotubes) and biomaterials (including encapsulated proteins) add to the potential functionalities that printing inks can contain. The evolving industry structure includes specialty printing systems providers such as Xennia Technology (Letchworth, England) microdrop Technologies (Norderstedt, Germany), and Unijet (Sungnam City, South Korea) and many new materials developers such as Novacentrix (Austin, Texas), Cambrios Technologies (Sunnyvale, California), and Kovio (Milpitas, California). The potential size of the market is not lost on major suppliers of materials, including Cabot Corporation (Boston, Massachusetts), DuPont (Wilmington, Delaware), and Xerox (Norwalk, Connecticut).
In addition to providing the advantages above, printing also offers various logistics and operational advantages and potential functional benefits. Additive manufacturing of 3-D structures does not require long lead times for mold making, allows rapid design changes without the need for new molds, allows multiple materials or parts to be made within each other, and allows custom designs that the costs of expensive molds prohibit.
In 3-D printing, at least a couple dozen small companies have created a small industry of less than $2 billion in the past 20 years; some industry analyst expect that industry to grow to $7 billion by 2020. Hewlett-Packard (Palo Alto, California), a major supplier of conventional printers and inks, recently signed a marketing agreement with the leading 3-D printer company, Stratasys (Eden Prairie, Minnesota). Many users of 3-D printers made by Z Corporation (Burlington, Massachusetts), another major supplier, already use Hewlett-Packard's color ink cartridges.
Although the 3-D printing market may seem small, the potential to put an inexpensive 3-D additive manufacturing machine anywhere presents the possibility of renewing a manufacturing industry that has seen its mass-production factory jobs leave for China and other low-cost-labor countries. Potential also exists for starting a new niche manufacturing industry at a small scale in virtually every location. Tinkers and makers are forming into groups to share equipment and, in some cases, to download open-source designs to use 3-D to manufacture personalized products. Companies that need manufacturing can post their designs on Web sites that contractors can download and print out as prototypes or finished parts.
For niche manufacturing to succeed, the manufacturers must be able to supply a high-quality product to a customer in a timely fashion, which computer-aided design software and 3-D printing might make possible. Chemical companies will need to distribute materials in small, easy-to-use sizes and forms that are also affordable. Customized medical products and implants are foreseeable, although they may face regulatory and liability issues that lengthen time to market.
Printed electronics and bioprinting could change the economic model for individuals or small companies to create and manufacture custom products. Time to market of printed products is also swifter than traditional production methods would allow, although the inherent nature of new printing technologies—in combination with computer-aided design—enables competitors to copy and reproduce a design almost immediately. If niche manufacturing equipment and personalized production business models were to become widespread, major product companies would find themselves in competition with local manufacturers and perhaps even their own customers for some market segments.