Getting Past the Hype About 3-D Printing

Although additive manufacturing techniques hold great promise, near-term expectations for them are overoptimistic.

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The hope for additive manufacturing is that it will revolutionize manufacturing.1 Although additive manufacturing — also known as 3-D printing — was developed back in the 1980s, it has garnered increased attention in recent years as managers look for ways to improve efficiency and reduce production costs. Managers hope that much the way GE’s new printed nozzle for jet engines has reduced the need for expensive materials and energy,2 3-D-printed parts will cut lead times and make supply chains more efficient in a wide range of settings.3

Despite the potential of additive manufacturing, we believe that near-term expectations for it are overblown. We base this conclusion on our research, which included 80 interviews as well as extensive study of the literature on the history of materials and process technologies, industry meetings, and factory visits.4 (See “About the Research.”)



1. R.A. D’Aveni, “3-D Printing Will Change the World,” Harvard Business Review 91, no. 3 (March 2013): 34.

2. T. Kellner, “World’s First Plant to Print Jet Engine Nozzles in Mass Production,” GE Reports, July 15, 2014,; and M. LaMonica, “GE, the World’s Largest Manufacturer, Is on the Verge of Using 3-D Printing to Make Jet Parts,” n.d.,

3. K. Marchese, J. Crane, and C. Haley, “3D Opportunity for the Supply Chain: Additive Manufacturing Delivers,” Sept. 2, 2015,

4. Bonnín Roca, E.R.H. Fuchs, P. Vaishnav, M. Granger Morgan, and J. Mendonça, “When Risks Cannot Be Seen: Regulating Uncertainty in Emerging Technologies,” July 2016,

5. R.E. Laureijs, J. Bonnín Roca, S.P. Narra, C. Montgomery, J.L. Beuth, and E.R.H. Fuchs, “Metal Additive Manufacturing: Cost Competitive Beyond Low Volumes,” Journal of Manufacturing Science and Engineering (2016) doi:10.1115/1.4035420.

6. Kellner, “World’s First Plant.”

7. I. Gibson, D. Rosen, and B. Stucker, “Design for Additive Manufacturing,” in "Additive Manufacturing Technologies: 3D Printing, Rapid Prototyping, and Direct Digital Manufacturing," 2nd ed. (New York: Springer, 2015), 399-435.

8. AmericaMakes, “Current Members,”

9. R.E. Elrod, “Classroom Innovation Through 3D Printing,” Library Hi Tech News 33, no. 3 (May 3, 2016): 5-7.

10. W.E. Frazier, “Metal Additive Manufacturing: A Review,” Journal of Materials Engineering and Performance 23, no. 6 (June 8, 2014): 1917-1928.

11. Waller, B.H. Parker, K.L. Hodges, E.R. Burke, and J.L. Walker, “Nondestructive Evaluation of Additive Manufacturing State-of-the-Discipline Report,” NASA/TM-2014-218560, November 2014,

12. C. Naden, “ISO and ASTM International Unveil Framework for Creating Global Additive Manufacturing Standards,” press release, Oct. 7, 2016,

13. National Science and Technology Council, Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on the Materials Genome Initiative “Materials Genome Initiative: Strategic Plan” (Washington, D.C., December 2014).

14. I.J. Petrick and T.W. Simpson, “3D Printing Disrupts Manufacturing: How Economies of One Create New Rules of Competition,” Research-Technology Management 55, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 49-57; and P. Markillie, “A Third Industrial Revolution,” Economist, April 21, 2012.

15. Laureijs et al., “Metal Additive Manufacturing.”

16. S.O. Onuh and Y.Y. Yusuf, “Rapid Prototyping Technology: Applications and Benefits for Rapid Product Development,” Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing 10, no. 3/4 (September 1999): 301-311.

17. European Commission, “Additive Manufacturing in FP7 and Horizon 2020: Report From the EC Workshop on Additive Manufacturing Held on 18 June 2014” (Brussels: European Commission, 2014).

18. A. Gandhi, C. Magar, and R. Roberts, “How Technology Can Drive the Next Wave of Mass Customization,” McKinsey on Business Technology 32 (winter 2013); and H.J. Nyman and P. Sarlin, “From Bits to Atoms: 3D Printing in the Context of Supply Chain Strategies,” in Proceedings of the 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, (Washington, D.C.,: IEEE Computer Society, 2014), 4190-99.

19. T.T. Wohlers and T. Caffrey, “Wohlers Report 2015: 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing State of the Industry Annual Worldwide Progress Report” (Fort Collins, Colorado: Wohlers Associates, 2015).

20. W.S. Chow et al., “Supply Chain Management in the U.S. and Taiwan: An Empirical Study,” Omega 36, no. 5 (October 2008): 665-679.

21. E. Feitzinger and H.L. Lee, “Mass Customization at Hewlett-Packard: The Power of Postponement,” Harvard Business Review 75, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1997): 116-121.

22. HP, “HP Delivers World’s First Production-Ready 3D Printing System,” press release, May 17, 2016,


This work was supported by Carnegie Mellon University and the CMU Portugal program, as well as by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). We would like to thank all the regulators and industry members who spent countless hours answering our questions. Any errors are our own.

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Comments (2)
Thank you for writing this. 30 years after invention, we are _still_ in the early stages for serious applications of this technology. Printing charm bracelets is one thing; making parts that must hold up over years is something very different. Your lovely article,  "When risks cannot be seen: Regulating uncertainty in emerging technologies" discusses some of this in more depth. 

What people seem to hope is that if a computer file can describe the external shape of a complex object, that will be sufficient to fabricate it. Demonstration parts were done this way, but practical/inexpensive parts need complex internal designs to reduce weight, cost, and fabrication time. Additional part requirements, such as movement, add additional design complexity. At least for now, this requires design expertise. In your opinion, to what extent will this problem ever be reducible to design rules? What about full automation for non-trivial problems?
Syed Aashir Hussain
This is very informative post i like. Thank you for sharing about 3D printing.