Dr Ahmad Beltagui

Dr Ahmad BeltaguiFaculty of Social Sciences

Ahmad Beltagui is a Lecturer in Operations Management and teaches on undergraduate/postgraduate modules related to operations, project management and information systems. Ahmad holds degrees in Engineering (MEng Product Design Engineering) and Management (PhD Operations Management) and his research concerns a broad range of topics related to design, innovation and service management. He has published in a number of international journals, including Journal of Product Innovation Management, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Creativity & Innovation Management, Games & Culture and Design Management Journal.

3D printing: a new industrial revolution?

3D printing is now commonly used to describe additive manufacturing processes, which create products by building up layers of plastic, metal or other materials, as opposed to removing (and typically wasting) material. Politicians in the West see these technologies as a means of making their nations “a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing” (Obama, 2013), while many authors have hailed 3D printing as the catalyst for a “new industrial revolution” (Anderson, 2012, Barnatt, 2012, The Economist, 2012).

During the first industrial revolution, the Black Country region could “…not be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe." (Burrit, 1868). However with a current unemployment rate almost double the national average (ONS, 2014), the region now faces a pressing need for a new industrial revolution.

This project aims to test these claims by investigating whether and how 3D printing can support both traditional manufacturing companies and enable the development of new companies. It seeks to look past the current hype to ask questions about the potential of 3D printing.

Executive Summary

3D Printing has not yet changed the world as we know it, but it may do so more subtly than some have predicted. This study examined the way that companies can and could use 3D printing to create new opportunities

1) The Background

The term 3D printing refers to a range of “additive” manufacturing processes, which create products by building up layers of plastic, metal or other materials, directly from a digital design file. While such technologies first appeared in the late 1980s, a recent flurry of activity has been stimulated by the expiry of the first patents and the development of supporting technologies, not least the internet. Consequently consumers and businesses have access to some forms of 3D Printing, starting what many authors have hailed as a new industrial revolution (Anderson, 2012, Barnatt, 2012, The Economist, 2012).

Little is known, however, about what the current impact of 3D Printing is and exactly what the future potential could be. Predictions range from the overly optimistic: everything in future will be 3D printed and everyone will have a 3D Printer at home; to the extremely pessimistic: 3D Printing will result in dangerous abuse of natural resources and cause massive social and environmental damage. Between these extremes are those who believe this is just another manufacturing technology and those who see unique potential for new business models and innovations. The purpose of this project was to look beyond the hype to capture how 3D Printing is being used and consider the opportunities emerging in the near future.

2) The Research

The project sought to examine two questions

1) What is the current impact of 3D Printing on UK industry?

2) How could 3D printing support the competitiveness of UK businesses?

Three studies were conducted to address these questions

Study 1: A mixed methods study using qualitative interviews combined with analysis of secondary data from companies offering 3D printing products and services. The study develops an understanding of the 3D printing “ecosystem” and contributes to knowledge by proposing that technologies are disruptive only when supported by an appropriate network of complementary services.

Study 2: A simulation study utilising systems dynamics methods to examine the potential impact of 3D printing and open innovation on market entry. A case study of a mobile phone company, founded with the intention of improving working conditions in the entire supply chain, is used to examine the potential of 3D printing to overcome resource constraints and support the competitiveness of small companies.

Study 3: A quantitative survey of manufacturing companies, using measurement instruments from research in information systems, operations strategy and innovation management. The study will contribute to knowledge on 3D printing by establishing relationships between existing resources and new technologies.

To date, the research has produced two papers (Beltagui, Gold and Kunz, 2016; Beltagui, Rosli and Candi, 2016) presented at international conferences, and one presentation at the University Research Conference. Ongoing data analysis will lead to further publications based on each of these three studies.

3) Initial Findings

  • The research suggests the majority of UK manufacturing companies have not used 3D Printing at all. However, around a third of respondents have at least made use of 3D Printing services provided by other companies, while a small number have invested in their own 3D printers. Previous studies suggest the adoption rate is close to the 20% required to be considered “mainstream” (D’Aveni, 2015).
  • Four levels of 3DP adoption were identified: 1) Material supplier, 2) Product developer, 3) Print Bureau and 4) Printer Manufacturer. These represent the entry points into the 3D printing industry for companies and entrepreneurs. Examples are shown in Table 1.
  3DP Level Illustrative Case Studies
0 No in-house 3D printing A producer of products supplied to manufacturing and construction industries which competes on the basis of its flexibility and speed of delivery to local customers. While 3D Printing does not currently pose a viable option for or threat to manufacturing processes, it offers opportunities for prototyping new products and communicating designs to potential customers in physical form.
1 Material supplier (for 3DP users) Type 1: A small company, established by entrepreneurs with some technical background but no specialised resources. The company purchases and resells materials for consumer 3D Printing. The open source nature of consumer 3D Printers allows easy access and a growing market for products and services.Type 2: A developer, producer and supplier of materials for other industries, with established resources for processing materials. The growth of 3D Printing in commercial and consumer forms creates a new market for the company to supply, using its existing capabilities. 
2 Product Development (using 3DP) A developer and producer of electronic products, whose products (and new prototypes) are normally produced by suppliers in Asia. Recent investment in a desktop 3D Printer has facilitated faster product development and some end-use products, where lead times for suppliers are inappropriate. The printer has also allowed the development and production of customised fixtures to reduce product testing times from minutes to seconds and improve safety of electronic tests.
3 3D Printing Bureau Service A company that designs and develops products and recently used 3D printing to produce a small batch of a new product line, since tooling costs for traditional manufacturing would be uneconomical. Subsequently, the company invested in desktop 3D printers and began offering design and production services.
4 3D Printer Manufacturer A company with R&D and logistics capabilities, that develops and distributes products. Having used 3D printers for prototyping a new product, the company used its R&D to develop a 3D printer, using open source designs as a starting point. This has led to a spin-off company developing, assembling and distributing desktop 3D printers for design and prototyping companies.

Table 1 – levels of 3D Printing adoption, adapted from Beltagui, Rosli and Candi (2016). Cases are anonymised to maintain confidentiality

  • The presence of open-source communities and availability of open designs makes barriers to entry low, which has allowed companies to take one or more of the four levels. Conversely, openness may be part of the reason 3D Printing has not had a disruptive impact in most industries, since openness allows imitation.
  • The disruptive potential appears to come not from the technology alone, but its ability to generate collaborative networks of interconnected actors and facilitate the exchange of scarce resources. This includes overcoming resource constraints by allowing customers to contribute to innovation (see case study below)

1How 3D Printing can lead to sustainability (through open innovation)

Researchers have argued that companies will never achieve “true” sustainability because stakeholders do not put enough pressure on them to do so (Shevchenko et al., 2016). While there is evidence that small, innovative companies can also be more sustainable, they lack the resources to really change the industries and supply chains they operate in.

Nowhere is this most evident than the mobile phone supply chain, where environmental and social sustainability is a distant dream, as product quality issues and unsavoury working practices do little to harm the sales of the large companies. A new entrant into this market, Fairphone, seeks to improve the sustainability of the mobile phone supply chain. It also uses 3D Printing as a way to involve customers in designing and making accessories for its phones.

We used available data to simulate the effect that 3D Printing could have on Fairphone’s sales and the sustainability of the mobile phone supply chain as a whole. While sales, production volumes and influence on suppliers are currently low, we identified two groups of customers, whose influence could help Fairphone achieve its goals.

1.Fairness customers, while small in number, are those likely to pay more for an ethically sourced product. The availability of accessories that can be customised and printed locally may also enhance the value of the brand for these customers.
2. Openness customers, who will welcome opportunities to design accessories and may be encouraged to voluntarily contribute to the company’s innovation, in ways that enhance the value of the brand for other customers.

New entrants into a saturated market normally lack the resources to make a big impact. For example, a new company will struggle to create a product from scratch, that can compete with the established players. In this case, however, 3D Printing, combined with open innovation, could offer a way to overcome the resource constraints. Openness customers, as we call them, will contribute to the company’s innovation efforts if they share the same values (Nambisan and Baron, 2010). Open innovation is well established in software development, but the availability of 3D Printing is increasingly opening possibilities in product development. Fairphone’s progress in coming years, along with those of other projects such as LocalMotors, will reveal the extent to which this approach can be disruptive. 

1Based on Beltagui, Gold and Kunz, 2016

5) Acknowledgements

I acknowledge the support of the University of Wolverhampton for funding provided under the ERAS scheme.

I am grateful to all of the individuals and companies that participated in the research.

I would also like to thank Prof. Silke Machold for her advice and guidance, Abda Aslam, Sonia Kumari and Antoinette Johnson for their work on data collection as well as Satya Chumber, Jane Buckingham and Joel Zaho for their support throughout the project and finally my co-authors, Marina, Ainurul, Stefan and Nathan for all of their help.

5) References

Anderson, C (2012) Makers: the new industrial revolution, Random House

Barnatt, C (2012) 3D-Printing: the next industrial revolution, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Beltagui, A, Gold, S and Kunz, N (2016) “Fairness, openness and mobile phones: How 3D printing can disrupt an established supply chain”, at Production and Operations Management World Forum, Havana, Cuba, September 6-10.

Beltagui, A, Candi, M & Rosli, A (2016) “Trajectories for innovation in the 3D Printing Ecosystem”, at 23rd International Product Development Management Conference (IPDMC 2016), Glasgow, United Kingdom, June 12-14.

D’Aveni, R. (2015) “The 3-D Printing Revolution", Harvard Business Review, 93(3), 41-48.

Economist, The (2012), “A third industrial revolution”, The Economist, Special Report: Manufacturing and Innovation, Vol. 403, No. 8781, 16pp.

Nambisan, S and Baron, RA (2010) “Different roles, different strokes: Organizing virtual customer environments to promote two types of customer contributions”, Organization Science, 21(2): 554-572.

Shevchenko, A, Lévesque, M and Pagell, M (2016) “Why firms delay reaching true sustainability”, Journal of Management Studies, 53(5):911-935.