3-D printing: Changing the world one print at a time

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.

 It is widely seen as a technology that will change the course of global manufacturing and the supply chain. Today, a number of industries already apply 3-D printing for various purposes, from rapid prototyping to end product manufacturing.

The 3-D printing market is expected to grow to USD 10.8 billion by 2021. While 3-D printing has been around for several decades, its popularity has recently skyrocketed. Today, it is found not just in industry, but in households, as the price of 3-D printers has fallen below US$1'000. Being able to print almost anything, not just marks on paper, opens up unlimited opportunities to manufacture items such as toys, household appliances and tools in homes.

At the event, 3-D printing enthusiast Mark Trageser gave a high energy opening keynote speech on what is possible to print using the technology, noting that we are only limited by our imaginations. He also talked about how the digitisation of manufacturing will transform the way goods are made and offer consumers endless possibilities to customise products.

The day continued with a riveting speech by research scientist Skylar Tibbits who wowed the audience with the progress his research lab has made in producing materials that, not only could be printed, but thanks to geometric code, could also change shape and transform over time. The materials change when confronted with outside forces such as water, movement or a change in temperature.

The breakout sessions included topics such as:

  • Bioprinting

  • Medical applications of 3-D printing

  • The expected impact of additive manufacturing on engineering 

  • The legal and regulatory challenges of 3-D printing

  • Emerging business models powered by 3-D printing

Following the sessions, Eric Schuh, Head of the Casualty Centre at Swiss Re, gave a keynote where he talked about some of the lines of business that could be impacted as 3-D printing becomes more widespread.

He noted that while the 3-D printing industry is still relatively small at the moment ($4B in 2014), its growth prospects are noteworthy. He also talked about some of the challenges of underwriting the risks of businesses involved in 3-D printing.

-D printing experts and legal scholars joined Jayne Plunkett for an interactive panel discussion on the risks as well as the opportunities that 3-D printing presents. The panellists were challenged on issues such as cyber risk, as well as the durability and safety of the products they designed. One of the panellists noted that having to meet safety and regulatory standards does provide certain benefits, but it usually results in products being over-engineered.

Another panellist claimed that 3-D printing is here to stay and will be a part of tomorrow's manufacturing landscape. In fact, many industries are already using it as 3-D printing represents another technological leap forward. In terms of regulation, it will be difficult to regulate 3-D printing across industries. Each industry may well have to decide for itself how to regulate it.

It was noted that insurers and lawyers should not automatically assume that a product is inferior because it was 3-D printed. If there is a loss, the question remains if the source of the problem was the technology problem, the design problem, the materials or the construction.

3-D printing is an exciting technology with significant implications for various industries. The insurance industry as it continues to climb the learning curve in regards to this technology, understands that it will require new underwriting approaches. While 3-D printing does pose certain challenges for the insurance industry, there are also significant opportunities to provide additional cover to small, medium and large enterprises.

A digital conference report of the event will be available as part of the Centre for Global Dialogue's app in the iTunes store and Google Play.

Summary by Brian Rogers, Senior Manager Business Development, Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.
The article is based on the "Expert Forum on 3-D Printing" which took place on 30 September 2015 at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.