In 1988, Tracy Chapman wrote the song, “Talkin’ bout a revolution”. The first stanza ended with the line “It sounds like a whisper.”

A revolution, as profound as the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, is upon us. Consider the facts.

3D printing started with 2D printing, squirting ink onto paper. It developed into 3D printing by adding additional layers of material until it became a 3D object. And the 3D printer or additive manufacturing (AM) was born. It provides the opportunity to print prototypes and small object as easily as printing coloured pictures.

The price of 3D printing is much lower than creating one object by conventional means, but much too high for mass production.

You probably know that already, but it is no longer correct.

Lite-On uses AM to build antennas for smartphones, and produces 15 million a year! That is mass production.

Phonak, manufactures customized hearing aids using AM. The audiologist is able to create a digital ear impression with a 3D scanner, and the highly personalized hearing-aid, the same day. That is speed.

Stryker Orthopaedics have developed small, specially programmed 3D printers to produce customised implants on the premises, while the surgeon and patient wait. That is time and money saving.

Lockheed Martin are producing ultra-strong, ultra-light weight bodies for F35 fighter jets using 3D printing. The planes are 50 feet long, have a wingspan of 35 feet and weigh 12 tons. The entire jet body and interior are printed in 3 months, as opposed to 2–3 years using conventional manufacture. Lochhead wants production reduced to weeks. And the F35 is produced in a small warehouse. You could literally print an air force ‘just-in-time’.

That is the other end of the size spectrum in both directions, what can be produced (big) and where it can be produced (small).

What are the implications for ships, harvesters, earth-moving equipment, and cars?

In 2014, at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, Local Motors Strati presented the world’s first 3D-printed car. This 2-seater’s body and chassis were made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. The car took only 40 hours to print and is built of only 50 individual parts, not the 30,000 required in conventional manufacture.

Cars and more, don’t have to be complicated and expensive to produce.

Jabil, Inc., the world’s 3rd-largest contract manufacturer has 102 facilities in 28 countries. They are building one of the world’s first manufacturing platforms that use digital technology to connect businesses around world. This smoothly interconnected manufacturing powerhouse will enable production at a fraction of the cost, around the globe, through a single system.

Gone will be the days when you need to erect huge factories dedicated to one product line. Instead, by sending the file with the specifications to the nearest AM printer, a wide range of products can be produced with no retooling.

This not the ‘the future’, it is happening already. The implications for costs, speed, quality and access, are revolutionary, and thrilling. What is chilling not thrilling, are the social impacts of these advances: the joblessness, and social disruption. The order of magnitude will match or exceed that of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

Are you ready? Are you aware? Yes, we are “talkin’ bout a revolution”, but “it sounds like a whisper”.

Guest Author Ian Mann

Ian Mann is from Gateways Business Consulting. He is the strategy midwife© who helps companies give birth to their best ideas. Ian specialises in strategy and leadership.