How do you get the biggest benefits from 3D printing? Think small

Italy's artisans could be the ones to profit most from embracing 3D printing in their manufacturing processes.

Through greater adoption of 3D printing in their manufacturing processes, small and mid-sized Italian enterprises could boost their revenues by €16bn, according to a recent study.

The research from consultancy Prometeia simulated the possible economic impact of the technology on 29 micro-sectors, ranging from jewelry to automotive parts and apparel, which between them make up around one-third of the Italian manufacturing industry's turnover.

"We carried out our simulation considering sectors that have already started to introduce 3D printing technology in their production lines and in which Italian manufacturing is traditionally strong," Prometeia's head of industrial and regional strategies Alessandra Lanza told ZDNet. "Of course, if we had taken into account all players in the industry, the gains could have been even greater."

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The simulation is based on the hypothesis that in the next five years, the cost of additive manufacturing systems will keep declining, as it has done in the last decade. Between 2001 and 2011, after adjusting for inflation, costs have fallen by 51 percent. Prometeia's figures also don't include the financial effects of introducing 3D printing on the organisational side of businesses, for example, in terms of savings on logistics and staff redeployment.

"The main advantage could come from rapid prototyping, which would allow companies to experiment and try new products at much cheaper costs than was possible before," Lanza said.

This would be a boon for Italy's SME sector, which is dominated by 3.4 million small businesses which employ under 10 people and have little money to invest in R&D.

"Another opportunity that 3D printing could offer is the ability to produce small batches of high-quality goods, personalized according to the customers' requests, in a more cost-effective way than before," the researcher added.

The jewelry industry could reap the greatest benefits from adopting 3D printing - increasing its revenue by 90 percent, the study said. Some startups, such as Naples-based Quid, have already begun to size up the opportunity. Launched in 2014 by siblings Cristiano and Barbara Oppo, Quid allows customers to choose the colour and design of jewelry, personalising it with the text, number, or shape of their choice. Orders are placed online, and the company ships around the world. Similarly, Trento-based .bijouets also 3D prints jewelry, although its customers can't modify designs.

The aerospace industry is also active in this space, with at least two Italian-headquartered companies now producing 3D printed parts for global giants such as Airbus and Boeing. One is Piedmont's Avio Aero (now part of GE Aviation). In late 2013, near Novara, it launched one of the largest plants in the world designed specifically for additive manufacturing. The plant is able to accommodate up to 60 machines in a 2,400-square meter space.

3D printing allows aerospace companies to reduce the production times for components and simplify manufacturing: instead of welding components produced separately in order to create an injector for an aviation engine combustor, for instance, with additive technology it's possible to produce a single piece.

Secondo Mona, headquartered near Varese, offers a wide range of products to the aerospace industry. It uses additive manufacturing mainly for component testing, but it's also evaluating the idea of adopting the technology for small-batch production as well.

Other well-known brands that have integrated 3D printing in their manufacturing are shoe manufacturer Vibram, maker of the Carrarmato sole; eyewear producer Mirage; and automakers from Ferrari to Ducati. Many of these big names prefer to rely on third-party services, suppliers focused on producing specific sets of components using additive techniques.

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Individual entrepreneurs are also experimenting with 3D. In Mestre near Venice, shoe maker Simone Segalin is using a printer to create a three-dimensional model of a shoe that will be created on-demand, tailored to a customer's foot. All the client has to do is measure her foot with a laser scanner and send the data by email to Venice, where the shoe will be produced and shipped back.

While encouraging, such efforts are still far from the norm among most Italian SMEs'. So what's holding back 3D printing from going mainstream?

According to Lanza, it's both a matter of product quality, and the age of the entrepreneurs.

"Additive manufacturing is used either in high-quality products or for very simple things. What's missing is the part in the middle. But things are starting to change."

Established Italian SMEs are often controlled by their founders, who are usually aged 60 or older, and may be less willing to adopt new means of production.

"The companies that have already passed though a generational renewal, and those that are used to competing in international markets are the ones that will be quicker to embrace the change," Lanza said.

With the national economy still struggling to recover from one of the longest recessions of its history, resisting innovation doesn't look like a viable option.

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