Capable of turning complex designs on the computer screen into physical objects in a matter of minutes, three-dimensional (3D) printers are poised to revolutionize manufacturing. The technology, which "prints" objects by applying successive layers of thermoplastic resin that accumulate and become the finished product, is already used to manufacture items such as medical devices, architectural models and airplane parts.

Injection molding – injecting a liquid polymer into a mold where it cools and hardens – still accounts for the bulk of plastics manufacturing, but the list of applications for 3D printing is growing and the technology is on track to be adopted by a broad spectrum of users. Customization and ease of use are hallmarks of 3D printing, and these vital attributes are expected to draw myriad new "additive manufacturers" into the fold – ranging from established manufacturing companies to individual hobbyists.

Although 3D printing is in its infancy in terms of scale and scope, a veritable "democratization of manufacturing" – a term that others have used to describe the technology's impact – could have significant implications for the petrochemicals industry in terms of product selection and customer base.

"The petrochemicals industry is the ultimate source of the extrusion-based 3D printing process," said Bruce Bradshaw, marketing director with Stratasys Ltd., a U.S.-Israeli company that manufactures 3D printing equipment and related materials. "It all starts with quality thermoplastic formulations. 3D printer manufacturers will continue to look to the petrochemicals industry for newer and better materials."

Two authorities in the area of 3D printing agree that the technology will increasingly make its mark on plastics manufacturing, but they are uncertain about how this trend will effect changes in the petrochemicals industry. Read below for insights from Terry Wohlers, president of the Colorado-based consulting firm Wohlers Associates, Inc., and Gary K. Fedder, director of The Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

DownstreamToday: How is 3D printing a disruptive technology in the context of plastics manufacturing? What are some key examples of manufactured goods that will be produced differently?

Terry Wohlers: Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing – we use the terms interchangeably – is a disruptive technology because it enables tool-less manufacturing, part consolidation, and the manufacture of complex designs that cannot be produced by conventional methods. For low-volume production, tool-less manufacturing is a key benefit. The most compelling examples to date come from the medical, dental, and aerospace industries, where low-volume, or one-off, production is typical.

Millions of in-the-ear hearing aid shells are being produced by 3D printing, and no two are alike. An impression of a patient's ear canal is captured, typically using a silicone material, which is then 3D-scanned to create a digital model. The shell is then created with special software and manufactured on a 3D printer.

Align Technology is the maker of the Invisalign invisible orthodontic aligners. Millions of aligners are made each year; most patients use more than 20 unique aligners over the course of his/her treatment. The aligners are not made by 3D printing, but one-of-a-kind forms are 3D printed and used to thermoform the aligners.

A key example from aerospace is environmental control systems (ECS) ducting on Boeing airplanes. They are very complex in shape, and thousands have been manufactured by 3D printing for commercial and military aircraft. Boeing has more than 200 part numbers on 10 production airplanes that are made by 3D printing. More than 100,000 production parts are flying on Boeing products.

Gary K. Fedder: In principle, additive manufacturing enables anyone to make plastic parts without extensive manufacturing training. The exciting enabling feature is the idea to press "print" and out comes a part wholly defined by a 3D solid model. Features of commercial 3D printers are rapidly advancing, but there is still a way to go before machines are available to make highly finished parts without some human-driven post-processing.

While 3D printing is not ready to replace injection molding, it provides tool-less production with "batch" quality in single-unit quantities. This latter feature is important in markets where customization is crucial, such as implants, prosthetics, personalized design, art and jewelry. Personalized design of otherwise "standard" components will become even more commonplace and inexpensive. For example, everything from lampshades to cell phone covers could be embossed with your favorite patterns or images. Some companies, such as Stratasys, are investigating incorporation of electronic functions into 3D printed plastic parts.

DownstreamToday: How might 3D printing change the supply chain? For instance, will new chemicals feedstocks be needed, will it lessen the need for some existing feedstocks and can we expect a major change in how manufactured products are distributed to customers?

Fedder: The biggest potential change by additive manufacturing is the ability to manufacture at distribution centers, which will reduce inventory. For example, you've probably read the recent stories of Amazon looking into these possibilities. The quality of the end product has to improve before such distributed manufacturing becomes a reality. Currently most additive manufactured items end up requiring finishing processes to clean debris and smooth surfaces.

The high-end additive manufacturing machines require proprietary feedstocks. For example, laser sintered manufacturing systems require a fine powder with a controlled size of particles in order to achieve the resolution and quality specified by the equipment provider. Eventually, third-party suppliers for materials will emerge as the market for 3D printing expands.

New materials are desirable for several reasons. Polymer materials with better strength at lower processing temperatures will open the door to more markets. Metal-based materials compatible with these polymers will lead to hybrid 3D printers capable of embedding electronic wiring, sensors and actuators into components.

Wohlers: Today, the total number of materials for AM is small compared to the number of materials for injection molding and other methods of plastic manufacturing. The total amount of material is also small by comparison. We foresee steady, incremental growth over the near-term future.

DownstreamToday: What are the major implications that 3D printing should have for petrochemicals manufacturers?

Wohlers: As mentioned, the total amount of material for 3D printing is currently quite small compared to total plastics manufacture. As the technology grows, we may see demand for smaller production volumes – more "boutique" production – and perhaps greater demand for tight control on feedstock powder morphology. However, these changes will be steady and incremental, so we don't consider them as "major implications." On the other hand, the AM industry has been waiting for real breakthroughs in plastics for well over a decade. If an AM material and process were developed that created parts that truly matched the physical properties of injection-molded plastics, it would be a very popular material.

Fedder: This connection is not clear at this time. Eventually there will be sufficient sales volume to spur investment by petrochemical manufacturers, but right now it appears many of these companies are taking a "wait and see" approach. If the demand for 3D printing explodes, as some predict, then petrochemical manufacturers will be motivated to develop new chemicals and materials for an expanding additive manufacturing base. Those companies that are listening to the early adopters' needs now will have an advantage.

Matthew V. Veazey has written about the upstream and downstream O&G sectors for more than a decade. Email Matthew at Twitter: @Matthew_Veazey