AMS Spring 2023

Dissertation Investigates Inhibitors and Enablers of 3D Printing in the Manufacturing Industry


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[Image: Denver Business Journal, 2015]

Disruptive innovation, a term that was first popularized by Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen, is a concept in which companies continue investing in the development of their established products, and at some point exceed the basic requirements of many of their customers. Disruptors introduce products that meet market needs through lower cost and/or more convenience, and disruption, in turn, often results in a change in the business system. Back in 2013, Christensen noted that disruptive innovation can create a new market and value network, and will end up disrupting an existing network.

3D printing in manufacturing, and this concept of disruptive innovation in particular, are the subjects of a dissertation, titled “The Promise of the Future: 3D Printing in Manufacturing,” written by Dr. Michael G. Westphal and submitted to the University of the Rockies in Colorado.

The abstract reads, “”Many industry analysts believe we are entering an era disruptive to manufacturing, which is likened to a Fourth Industrial Revolution and will be ushered in with technology like 3D printing and additive manufacturing.  The purpose of this qualitative descriptive case study was to explore the current use of 3D printing and inhibitors and enablers in small-to-medium sized manufacturing and parts production.  A qualitative methodology was used in this research to develop an explanation and gain a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of the sample population.  Sample group representatives from Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado, participated in semi-structured, open-ended interviews, with questions directed to discuss both the inhibitors and enablers to the use of 3D printing and additive manufacturing.  A qualitative analysis took place the revealed eight major tactical themes and three additional strategic findings that act as inhibitors and enablers to the use of 3D printing and additive manufacturing.  The eight themes the emerged were as follows: investment costs, access to trained workers, prototyping, part complexity and customization, part quantities, part qualities, speed of production, and materials considerations.  Additional findings included production workflow and lights-out manufacturing, knowledgebase and perception issues, and risk management and precipitating events.  The result of this qualitative case study may help industry as a whole to understand the issues of inhibitors and enablers to the use of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in manufacturing.”

We should all know by now that adopting 3D printing in manufacturing operations can help companies save money and time. But, as Dr. Westphal put it, the future is leaning more towards 3D printing touching “the lives of consumers at every level.”

Dr. Michael G. Westphal

“3D printing as a tool in manufacturing has the potential to produce a significant paradigm shift,” Dr. Westphal states in his dissertation. “Businesses already in the marketplace need to understand the challenges of the future of 3D printing.”

The dissertation takes a look at some of the main inhibitors and enablers to the adoption of AM through the frame of a qualitative case study on small-to-medium sized manufacturing and parts production in the state of Colorado.

“Without an understanding of inhibitors and enablers associated with the use of 3D technology, small-to-medium sized manufacturers may not be adequately prepared to create sound organizational strategies while competing in an ever-changing marketplace,” explained Dr. Westphal. “The exploration of the inhibitors and enablers to the use of 3D printing as encountered by small-to-medium sized manufacturing business was the focus of this study. Gaining a better understanding of inhibitors and enables may lead to more informed decision-making for small-to-medium sized manufacturing and could help the larger industry in assessing future need.”

Using the following open-ended questions, Dr. Westphal interviewed several representatives from area companies:

  1. What are the perceptions of small-to-medium sized manufacturing and part machining companies regarding the use of 3D printing and additive manufacturing?
  2. What are the inhibitors to the incorporation of 3D printing and additive manufacturing into small-to-medium sized manufacturing businesses?
  3. What are the enablers to incorporating 3D printing and additive manufacturing into small-to-medium sized manufacturing companies?

Metal part in the Manufacturing track of Dassault Systèmes’ 2018 Science in the Age of Experience event [Image: Sarah Goehrke for]

Each of the interviews lasted about an hour, and eight themes in regards to “tactical considerations for the use of 3D printing at the manufacturing site” emerged from the findings: the cost of investment, part complexity and design, materials consideration, prototyping and rapid prototyping, speed, part quality, part quantity, and access to a workforce that was trained in AM. Three additional findings, relating to but separate from the aforementioned themes, were production workflow and lights-out manufacturing, knowledge base and perception issues, and risk management and precipitating events.

While perceptions on the use of 3D printing on the factory floor differed between the interviewees due to “where they fell on the continuum of current use” and the kinds of manufacturing, each of the participants did agree “that the future of manufacturing will include 3D printing and additive manufacturing in some way.”

“Change is hard. Change is often slow and with the study participants, requires proof that somehow the change being sought is an improvement,” Dr. Westphal noted. “In the case of additive manufacturing being inculcated with production workflow, consensus (82%) of the group was that it will be an incremental change. Finding the proper fit with processes and established models is the key to its use. The perception and opinion offered is that 3D printing has its place in augmenting production but will never replace a machinist or line worker.”

Dr. Westphal said that all the participants did agree on one thing – the pace of change in the AM marketplace gives them reason to pause. Additionally, nearly 77% of the study participants said that 3D printing can’t disrupt the industry until a culture change happens.

“One of the goals of this study was to understand the perceptions of manufacturers to the use of 3D printing in manufacturing,” Dr. Westphal concluded. “My study results revealed a broad interest in this new technology platform by the participant group. My study also revealed a pragmatic caution by the participants to move quickly forward into the use of additive manufacturing.”

Discuss this research and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 

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