Editor’s note: As 3D printing continues its shift from prototyping tool to an actual means of production, forward thinking manufacturers are looking for ways to incorporate the technology into their workflows. Doing so requires software and management solutions that can handle a wide variety of 3D printing processes.
SAP’s 3D printing software, SAP Distributed Manufacturing, enables digital transformation across the extended supply chain. The solution helps users connect with 3D printing companies, original equipment manufacturers and related service providers. Importantly, the software also helps determine when it’s appropriate to use 3D printing in an operation and when traditional production makes more sense.
Gil Perez is the senior vice president of digital assets and internet of things at SAP, where he is responsible for the development and commercializing of a range of SAP tools. APICS magazine Senior Managing Editor Elizabeth Rennie recently interviewed Perez to learn more about 3D printing and how it’s influencing supply chain professionals globally.
How would you describe the current state of 3D printing technology?
3D printing is rapidly becoming cost effective. That plus more consistency in quality means it’s emerging as a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing. We’re currently in a transition from prototyping to mainstream industrial, which is why SAP has been so focused on this area. In fact, by 2020, the 3D printing market is expected to hit $21 billion, marking a 187 percent growth rate compared with 2016.
Rennie: How is the transition to digital manufacturing changing the rules of the game in supply chains around the world?
Perez: We’re in an evolve-or-die market. … Companies need to adapt to changing customer demands to grow their businesses. Being constrained by an inflexible supply chain or outdated manufacturing processes will prevent them from thriving in our increasingly customer-centric world.
Rennie: How is 3D printing leading to positive results for SAP clients? Can you share some real-world examples?
Perez: In the aerospace and defense field, companies are using 3D printing to manufacture various items from aircraft seats to fuel engine nozzles. Moog is leading the way with 3D printed metal parts for the aerospace and defense industry. The innovative parts are reducing airplane weight and lowering fuel costs across the board. UPS is collaborating with SAP … to expand service offerings to [be] a logistics, transportation, and 3D-printing and on-demand manufacturing provider. Jabil Circuit, which is a U.S.-based global manufacturing services company, is using SAP [tools] to understand the cost, supply chain dependencies and availability to manufacture 3D printed parts versus going with traditional manufacturing. … The [leaders] are developing a distributed, on-demand manufacturing service of certified parts and rightsizing their connected digital supply chain across the company’s 120 manufacturing plants globally. This is creating new efficiencies and cost savings as well as allowing Jabil to accelerate the growth of a new business unit focused on 3D printing.
Rennie: What lessons are these clients learning about 3D printing along the way?
Perez: First off, it’s important for manufacturers to understand that not every asset should be 3D printed. From a technical perspective, not all 3D materials are printable. Some polymers aren’t even available in 3D printing materials. Further, larger parts or things that require detailed craftsmanship can’t be printed for logistical reasons.
Rennie: As 3D printing moves beyond industrial prototyping to larger-scale manufacturing processes, what are the most important developments and trends for supply chain professionals to monitor?
Perez: There’s a rapidly increasing demand for personalized products. People don’t want to just buy a pair of shoes; they want them customized and delivered to their doorsteps in a timely manner. We’re at a time when people expect immediate gratification and efficiency when making a customized purchase. If it’s going to take several weeks to receive the product, they just won’t buy it. 3D printing enables businesses to deliver custom products and to respond to consumer demand for faster delivery of customized products.
As 3D printing continues to move into mainstream manufacturing, it is going to significantly streamline supply chains. Connecting 3D printing to the manufacturing line can dramatically improve speed and efficiency [and] help manufacturers optimize production, achieve cost savings and reduce complex issues within the extended supply chain. It’s enabling companies to have a truly distributed manufacturing model. There have been a lot of advancements in 3D printing in the shoe industry specifically. In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, sprinter Allyson Felix wore Nike’s Zoom Superfly Flyknit track and field shoes, which were 3D printed specifically for her feet. After several iterations, the finished product was precisely contoured to her exact size and running stride. Businesses should monitor trends like this that are making national news and influencing what consumers expect from goods.
In fact, global footwear production and consumption trends … are continuing to increase. Yet, at the same time, we are seeing a decline in the production of footwear in China. And where is the production going? To a long list of countries — India, Brazil and many more. The driving force for this shift is an optimization of the supply chain and inventory levels and also customer needs for personalization and the immediate gratification of same-day delivery.
So, this overall shift in consumer footwear is not driven by 3D printing only, yet it is accelerating the shift and will become a key enabler across multiple industries.
Rennie: Do you think a 3D printer will ever be able to perform on a level that can compete with mass production?
Perez: 3D printing cannot compete with mass production, but that’s not the intention. Mass production will always be there, but we’re going to start seeing mass-produced laptop but have its outer shell customized to your liking. We’re looking forward to seeing more companies finding synergy between the two. So, if you’re making up to 1,000 parts annually, it makes sense to evaluate 3D printing. But if you’re making more than that, you’ll want to mass produce.
Rennie: So, if 3D printing is giving manufacturers new production options — and giving customers more options and a new kind of control over the products they buy — what does all of this mean for supply chain professionals?
Perez: Companies now are able to offer complete personalization. For example, 3D printing is having a huge impact in health care, where customization and timeliness are incredibly important. Companies are printing things like special parts for life-saving devices and prosthetic limbs and knee and hip implants to fit a patient’s exact bone structure and body type. If someone needs a hip replacement, an artificial hip can be custom designed and printed to fit that individual’s specific body type. 3D printing actually is more efficient than mass production in instances like this when devices can be printed on an as-needed basis and customized perfectly to the individual who needs it.
The desire for, and the availability of, completely customized products will have a huge impact on the extended supply chain. We’ll see more organizations leveraging 3D printing technology in the last leg of their supply chain operations. For example, if people want headphones customized to fit their ears perfectly, the headphone parts might be mass produced in a large facility and then shipped to a local UPS store where there is on-demand, 3D printing capability. Then the final parts — the ear buds themselves — can be printed, assembled and shipped to the individual customers from there.
Rennie: Can 3D printing bring about more sustainable and socially responsible operations?
Perez: There are two ways I think this has potential. First, 3D printing will enable distributed manufacturing across the globe, which will reduce transportation miles and resources. For example, if you have a plant in South Africa producing a product needed in the United States, you can have the product printed in San Francisco and shipped a shorter distance. Further, 3D printing could be used to reduce waste globally. Some scientists believe that household recycled plastic could be used as 3D printing material for household printers. In this manner, 3D printing could be a way to reduce the amount of plastic sitting in landfills and oceans around the globe. While we’re still years away from having 3D printers as household products, this is an exciting vision.
Elizabeth Rennie is senior managing editor for APICS magazine. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
To comment on this article, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Elizabeth Rennie's "3D Printing Primer"
to learn more about the basics of 3D printing.