3D Printing: Coming of Age
About four years ago, the 3D printing concept took the Indian market by storm. After establishing itself in developed countries, 3D printing emerged as a promising concept in the Indian market. The Indian market was quick to adopt to the new technology. Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and due to initiatives taken by local assemblers and domestic manufactures, the 3D printers were available at affordable cost to consumers. In a short span, 3D printing presented a wide variety of opportunities ranging from designing studios, engineering companies and manufacturing units.
The technology is specifically seen as a cutting edge in fashion and lifestyle, quick prototyping by engineering firms and medical & healthcare research. It would assist in achieving a much quicker product development in industries such as automotive, consumer goods and general engineering.
Medical and healthcare industry can improve the quality of treatment and care by utilising patient specific solution. For fashion and lifestyle, the technology is particularly useful because the sector is highly design-orientated and values customisation of products. Designers would not be restricted by the inability of a manufacturing process while conceptualising a design.
But the initial euphoria was short-lived. Some operational issues and odd practicalities has slowed down the initial boom and the sector is re-evaluating the market. The capital intensive nature of the industry coupled with high import cost of materials has started posing hurdles. Initially, a lot of design units, especially small mid-sized players, took to the technology but then they started feeling the pinch. They were not ready to put money in prototyping as an investment instrument but saw it as a costly expenditure.
But 3D is a technology of the future and is here to stay. People have started realising that this new technology is a solution to many of their problems. Typically, doctors rely on equipment and prosthetic materials which are imported from the west. These equipment are not just costlier but also need several days to be procured as they are customized as per the needs of the patients. With the 3D technology, doctors in India have figured out substitutes that address the needs of patients at cheaper prices -- one-tenth of the original cost -- and in short span of time.
While better understanding of the technology has led to better optimisation of the process, materials for 3D printing is now being engineered and locally procured due to which costs have come down drastically.
So the technology was at one point being considered uneconomical for mass production, and difficult to be sustained has found its survival amidst innovation and evolution in the domestic market. The changing market trends are motivating manufacturers towards providing customised products. In short, the manufacturing industry is shifting from mass production to mass customization. The 3D printing does not need to aim towards mass production. However, it needs to make sure that the parts are technically and economically feasible for the application they are aimed at.
Considering the availability of cheap mass produced items from China, people think that there's an uncertainty around 3D printing in India. India has always been a knowledge based economy that is driven by engineering, innovation and design. It's true that India is a price-sensitive market and cheap imports are in demand.
The 3D printing industry is expected to be driven by higher demand for customisation, shorter product development cycles and a local design democratisation. We should make sure that local growth of design and innovation is not hampered by the lack of feasible manufacturing solutions.
(The author is Founder, JUST 3D)