3D printing technology is reshaping the relationship between producers, users and intermediaries – redefining the meaning of 'value' and challenging conventional business models.

Additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing – has become a mainstream engineering technology for rapid prototyping, creating specialist industrial components, copying existing objects, or short-run parts to clients' specifications. The ability to create 3D objects of almost any shape or size using a wide range of materials (including plastics, foodstuffs, powdered metals and cement) is ushering in fundamental changes in tooling, helping accelerate production processes and enabling mass customisation of products. Objects manufactured in this way can range from intricate pieces of jewellery, machine parts, to large-scale components for pre-assembled buildings and rocket engines.

However, this manufacturing revolution poses a major challenge for conventional business models. 3D printing technology allows, for example, items to be produced locally, leading to shifts in existing supply chains and global logistics. In addition, future growth in local production will have an impact on the use of low-skilled offshore labour and the need for international shipping of goods. Also, production of customised items is overriding business models dedicated to the manufacture of standardised products and components. This innovative technology is, therefore, fundamentally disrupting the way organisations create and capture 'value' – or in other words, how they construct and evolve their business models.

An interdisciplinary research team at the University of Strathclyde, led by Dr Luciana D'Adderio, is investigating 3D printing and open source digital design technologies, and how they are shaping new business models for product customisation. In particular, they are exploring the ways that value is created, delivered and communicated in this new context.

"Our approach contrasts with the majority of existing research literature, which has mostly treated business models as tools that managers and entrepreneurs can manipulate in their efforts to gain value from 3D printing," says Dr D’Adderio.

"The idea of value in existing literature is mostly understood as a 'self-evident utility' - that is, a static feature of the object itself, rather than something generated dynamically through the process of business model creation and exploitation. Instead, our research suggests that there are advantages in observing the range of actions and practices involved in the development of 3D printing business models, and treating value as something that is generated not by but through the making of business models."

The researchers have investigated the activities of entrepreneurs and organisations that generate 'value' across the boundaries with customers, users and producers - boundaries that in 3D printing are becoming increasingly blurred. Research has identified that it is not only corporate managers and entrepreneurs, but also a wide range of intermediaries who are influencing and shaping the substance and meaning of value.

Preliminary findings indicate that we need a much deeper exploration of the processes of creating and exploiting value in the era of 3D printing, in order to understand how business models emerge and are likely to impact the evolution of this manufacturing process in the future.