3D Printing - Global Economy Disruptor?

Steve Morkovsky
February 27, 2014

Executive Summary

“Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did....Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches." 1


When first hearing the term 3D printing you probably imagine globs of ink-saturated paper mache objects. However, 3D printing is all about bringing a CAD (computer aided design) drawing to life more quickly than ever before. The concept has been around for 30+ years, is used in almost every industry, and has even worked its way into many people’s homes as the technology has become increasingly affordable. The original uses of 3D printing were for very rapid prototyping, but now uses run the gamut, ranging from personal to commercial applications.

Historically, manufacturing has involved removing material from a solid substance (subtractive). Think of wood working and using a saw to shape what you are building. 3D printing, on the other hand, is an “additive” manufacturing (AM) process where layers of material are “added” onto the object in development, typically one very small layer at a time. This approach has shortened the typical prototype manufacturing process from days down to hours.


There are currently several different 3D printing technologies which use a variety of different materials, although the list continues to grow as new materials and processes are introduced. An overview of these technologies and materials are noted below:


3D Printing Applications

The initial uses of 3D printing were primarily for hobbyists and for rapid prototyping. However, with improved and faster printing technology, the manufacturing realm has expanded greatly. 3D printing is optimal for manufacturing products with certain criteria – low volume manufacturing runs for a highly complex product to traditional manufacturing such as plastic injection molding. Due to the initial investments required for manufacturing and setting up the tooling (molds) for low volume jobs, 3D printing becomes a viable and likely manufacturing alternative.

Applications utilizing 3D printing can be broadly categorized as structural, electronic and biological. 3D printed products in the structural and electronic category are already in the marketplace. The biological/medical category is in its infancy with a limited number of products available today, but robust research efforts are underway, which should bring more products to market in the next several years.

  • STRUCTURAL: Includes finished goods such as wearable plastic undergarments, plastic trinkets and toys, plastic artwork, plastic working models, adhesive/sand buildings, complex gearing systems, etc.
  • ELECTRONIC: This consists of printing circuits to form antenna used in mobile devices, tightly integrated electronic circuitry, solder-free electronics and electronic devices using conductive plastic composites.
  • BIOLOGICAL (a.k.a. Bioprinting): Includes the printing of human compatible components such as titanium lower jaw implants, broken/missing bone implant components, artificial ears and noses, printing pigskin cells onto burn wounds, liver replacement using skin cells and so on.


Applications in the medical field are unique, innovative and promising.

“….additive manufacturing is on the verge of breaking into a more startling area. Using the techniques of 3D printing, doctors may soon be able to produce soft-tissue implants such as blood vessels. And following on from that could be the ability to build a whole organ - such as a liver or kidney - complete with all its blood vessels. Additive manufacturing could make the transplant list a thing of the past.”3

The efforts going into biological 3D printing are enormous ranging from building a framework of cells from stem cells, printing parts for hip replacements and researching “zero rejection” printed kidneys (as it would use the patient’s own cells). An actual ear has been "printed" at Princeton University with electronics within using bovine cells4. While not meant for practical usage, the project is exploring methods of combining biological materials with electronics.

The technology is already here enabling our smartphones to be used as a 3D scanner. With this technology, you are literally able to “copy” an object and send it to a third-party 3D printer for replication.5  Medical professionals are currently using a version of this technology to “create and print sophisticated, full-color, 3D anatomical models from CT scans, MRI scans or any other digital imaging and communications data”6.

Automotive & Industrial

The automotive industry has been using 3D printing for prototypes since the 1990s. Currently some extremely high value, low volume car manufacturers are using 3D printing for plastic components. In turn, this eliminates the need for machine molds traditionally required for parts production.

Complex, moving parts can be 3D printed in a process using both structural and sacrificial materials. Complex systems (i.e., gears, treads) can be printed as a block and the sacrificial material is etched away to reveal a functioning gear or chain tread systems. Design News demonstrates 3D printing possibilities on its blog and a short video7The video shows a complicated gearing mechanism that was manufactured using a Stratasys 3D printer – a process that would have been highly difficult using conventional manufacturing techniques.

Potential Exposures

In the 3D printing world, instead of patenting an actual product, there may be a need to patent the software or CAD design of the product. Thus, electronic piracy will be an inevitable hazard to overcome as people potentially steal a design and simply produce or print your product(s) by downloading a file.

Intellectual property issues will abound, along with data integrity and security concerns. Hackers could corrupt a design that may result in latent failures. Depending on the product, a corruption of the design could result in a component failure with minor to catastrophic consequences (i.e., a printed aircraft engine component).

For 3D print service providers, researchers and hobbyists, the chief hazards are burns since the printer heads are operating around 200 C. Possible inhalation risks and health concerns have been raised over 3D printing, with studies revealing the emission of nano-scale particles. Depending on the feedstock used, there can be varying degrees of toxicity. While no research has conclusively proven harmful side effects any more than burning candles or cooking on a stove, all agree that 3D printing should be conducted in a well-ventilated area.

There are concerns that this technology may disrupt global commerce, as it enables consumers to manufacture items directly instead of relying on other providers. While this may be a valid concern someday, the major uses remain a complement to traditional subtractive methods of prototyping and production. Today’s 3D hype is mainly from 3D printing hobbyists and low volume/complex manufacturing entities.

Hobbyist or not, consumer use will help drive the market for personal 3D printers. Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner and TechCrunch writer Natasha Lomas noted, "We expect that a compelling consumer application — something that can only be created at home on a 3D printer — will hit the scene by 2016.8” While this will be a boost to the 3D printing industry, it will hardly affect commerce on any large scale.

Warehousing of simple single-material goods, however, could be a thing of the past. The ability to quickly make products to meet demand – or “just in time” manufacturing – would eliminate the need to warehouse finished components or products. Alternatively, warehousing would focus on the raw materials needed to 3D print the product. However, if products are high volume in nature and need to be mass produced, current production methods still remain the most efficient approach and are expected to remain so into the foreseeable future. David Bolognino, director of design fabrication for General Motors, was quoted as saying, “I don’t see a paradigm shift in the amount of time it takes to build the parts from these machines (3D printers) any time soon9”.

Whether eventually an economic disruptor, or simply a new way of achieving results with less waste, 3D printing will affect us in the days ahead, particularly as market demand drives adoption and advancements. If you can conceive it, it can likely be built now or in the near future using 3D printing. From jewelry to buildings,10 to outer space living quarters,11 3D printing is inevitably on its way into our lives in ways currently not imaginable.

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1 ”Print me a Stradivarius”. (February 10, 2011). The Economist. Retrieved October 2013. http://www.economist.com/node/18114327?story_id=18114327

2 ”3D Printing.” Wikipedia. Retrieved October 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing#cite_note-Auto3D-18-27

3 Nathan, Stuart (May 24, 2010). “Building body parts with 3D printing.” The Engineer. Retrieved October 2013. http://www.theengineer.co.uk/in-depth/analysis/building-body-%20parts-with-3d-printing/1002542.article

4 “Princeton researchers create bionic ear”. (July 3, 2013). Associated Press and reported on Fox News website. Retrieved October 2013. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/07/03/princeton-researchers-create-bionic-ear/

Ludwig, Adam (February 7, 2012). “Sculpteo takes 3D printing to the cloud”. Forbes. Retrieved October 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/techonomy/2012/02/07/sculpteo-takes-3d-printing-to-the-cloud/#20d7567877f4

Thryft, Ann (September 19, 2013). “3D printing in the medical cloud.” Design News. Retrieved October, 2013. http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=267884

7 Murray, Charles (November 5, 2013). “Video: What 3D Printing Can & Can’t Do”. Design News, Retrieved October 2013. http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1395&doc_id=269366&print=yes

Lomas, Natasha (October 2, 2013). “The much-hyped 3D printer market is entering a new growth phase, says Gartner”. TechCrunch. Retrieved October 2013. http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/02/gartner-3d-printer-market-forecast/

David Bolognino, director of design fabrications for General Motors Co. (article by Alan Richter, editor of CTE (Cutting Tool Engineering), September 2013 edition, Vol. 65, Issue 9

10 Jordan, Crook. (January 20, 2013). “The world’s first 3D printed building will arrive in 2014”. TechCrunch. Retrieved October 2013. https://techcrunch.com/2013/01/20/the-worlds-first-3d-printed-building-will-arrive-in-2014-and-it-looks-awesome/

11 Diaz, Jesus. (January 31, 2013). “This is what the first lunar base could really look like”. Gizmodo. Retrieved October 2013. http://gizmodo.com/5980534/this-is-what-the-firstlunar-base-could-really-look-like