31 July 2013

Supply Chain Networks Face the 3D Printing Revolution

Supply Chain Networks Face the 3D Printing Revolution

Once an intriguing, but limited technology, 3D printing has become a highly viable avenue for making products in the past few years. Clinics use 3D printing to produce implants and prostheses. Manufacturers experiment with it to develop and test prototypes for parts. Architects and designers are already printing houses and other buildings. The momentum for 3D printing is growing very rapidly. That 3D printing will bring radical changes to supply chain networks and the manufacturing industry is almost an understatement.

Initially, the standard raw material for 3D printing was liquid resin, which is still in use. But today, printers can also accommodate a variety of powders that can provide powerful structural integrity once they are fused by laser beams. In addition, edible substances can also serve as the source material for 3D printers.

Innovators are already printing and testing food products and edible packaging made by means of 3D printing. Before long, 3D printers will become much more affordable and powerful as well as ubiquitous. Many supply chains and consumers will embrace the technology to customize, prototype, and test products, provide replacement parts for electronics and machinery, modify or replace construction components such as doors and hinges, and adjust prostheses and implants as patients grow up or their bodies change.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process in the supply chain that depends on the right kind of supplies added in the appropriate quantity. Thus, there is a whole new class of raw materials that need to be sourced, manufactured, and distributed to wherever 3D printers are. Some 3D printers might be in traditional manufacturing locations, but many will be in architects’ and engineers’ offices, medical clinics, retail locations, research institutes, consumer homes, and elsewhere. Once field service teams make use of 3D printing to produce parts and components for machinery and equipment, an additional mobile dimension will add further complexity to distribution.

At the same time, increasing numbers of 3D printers and parts will be produced and shipped to a great variety of destinations. The different sizes make it easier to integrate into various supply chains. Printer models will be very diverse, ranging from desktop-size machines that can make small parts and prosthetics, to devices that are as large as a small house and that can churn out an entire building or parts of a construction project. In time, printers will become more rugged, so they function well in challenging outdoor environments and on project sites.

The world’s supply chains will have to adjust to deliver the source materials for 3D printing, along with printers, to the many locations where 3D printing will take place. Because 3D printing can happen in consumers’ homes and in many places of business close to them, shipping of some types of products will likely decline. Mass-produced items, however, will likely still come from traditional factories and reach their users through the channels that already exist today. So far, it looks like 3D printing will be an optimal fit for customized, individual, model, prototype, replacement, or one-off productions, not manufacturing of great quantities of standardized products.

With the adjustment to 3D printing, the use of logistics services and associated costs will go down for many of the products and industries where 3D printing is a natural supply chain application. It remains to be seen to what extent the distribution of raw materials for 3D printing will balance or even surpass those reductions. In many businesses, required inventory levels may also decline with the change to on-demand production that 3D printing enables. The suppliers, warehouses, and shipping teams of companies that make and provide 3D raw materials will be extremely busy. To succeed profitably, these businesses will have to meet the needs of large numbers of customers with extreme efficiency and accuracy.

Consider how the coming 3D printing revolution will impact your business’ supply chain. What are the changes in processes and systems that you expect to make? 

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Eric Van Hofwegen
Eric Van Hofwegen,
Eric Van Hofwegen,
Solutions Consultant

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