In the world of product managers, we can dream big. We can use our product development definition to imagine products that can solve customer problems perfectly. They are skinny, strong, wide, long, and fit perfectly where our customers need them to go. Right after we get done imagining what our product needs to look like, what generally happens is that we come crashing down to earth as reality settles in and we realize that the perfect product cannot be created using today’s manufacturing processes. They are too complex, too detailed, or simply can’t be made to be strong enough. The good news is that things are changing. 3-D printing is going to make all of our product manager dreams come true.
The reason that this is the time for product managers to start to get excited about 3-D printing and perhaps getting our product manager resume out is because 3-D printing is getting ready to hit a milestone. The technology has become good enough and the costs associated with it have become low enough that mass produced 3-D parts can now start to be made. This has never been possible before. In the past, 3-D printing has been used solely for creating expensive prototypes and for creating customized parts for things like airplanes.
The one thing that can be said about the 3-D printing world is that it has not been standing still. 3-D printing has constantly been undergoing radical innovation and now for the first time 3-D printing techniques exist that are going to allow impossible designs to finally start to show up in product manager’s products. The impact of this over the long term is going to be that products that would have been impossible to create only a few years ago will soon become almost commonplace. Additionally, no longer will our products have to be made in some far-off land. 3-D printing is going to allow a shift of some manufacturing closer to the customers that the product managers will be serving.
3-D printing is not new. The technology has been around for over 20 years. However, in the past 3-D printing was restricted to making prototypes, novelties, machines for factories, or expensive specialized parts. When product managers are using a traditional manufacturing process, they are required to create molds, casts, and machining. As you can well imagine, this means that there are some significant upfront costs to getting ready to manufacture a new product. This process is a great way to go about making 1,000,000 of something, but not so great if you need fewer. The world of 3-D printing has finally come up with a way to speed up the process of 3-D printing while at the same time reducing both the cost and using stronger materials.
How Will 3-D Printing Change Our Lives
Traditionally, 3-D printing has consisted of machines that were basically glorified hot glue guns that dropped small bits of plastic in assigned locations. New 3-D printers from HP cost US$130,000 and draw with heat absorbing ink on plastic powder. This allows layers that are 1/10th of a millimeter to be built one at a time. Another 3-D printer from a company called Desktop Metal costs US$360,000 and uses ink jets to shoot a binding agent to hold tiny bits of metal together. Once this has been accomplished, they are then fused in a big oven.
From a product manager point of view, these new types of 3-D printing represent a revolution in how things can be created. In the past, 3-D printer companies gave away their printers and then charged their customers for specialized printing materials. Now cheaper powdered plastics for use in the HP printers will be available from over 50 different companies. What all of this innovation means is that product managers can expect many of the parts that can be found inside of many different products will start to become 3-D printed. A key market will be replacement parts for construction equipment because print-on-demand will allow the elimination of expensive distributed warehouses.
Product managers do need to keep in mind that there are a number of barriers that still stand in the way of 3-D printing becoming a mainstream manufacturing technology. The new 3-D technologies have dropped the costs of the items that they are able to product over older 3-D printing techniques. However, that cost really does not remain competitive with traditional manufacturing processes when you are creating more than 20,000 items. Another point to keep in mind is that traditional manufacturing has high up-front costs that go down over time. However, when you are using 3-D printing the cost of each item that you create will always remain constant. Finally, we’re still at the early stages of using 3-D printing and nobody really knows if these parts are going to be able to hold up over time. This type of question is only going to be answered over time.