There is no doubt that 3D printing is transforming supply chain management. In fact, additive manufacturing has the potential to influence the global marketplace at a level equivalent to the harnessing of steam power, the assembly line or robotic production automation.
Whereas typical manufacturing processes start with raw materials that are reshaped prior to being assembled, 3D printing builds items layer by layer, following a precise set of instructions. This is fundamentally changing the way that designers, companies and consumers interact in today’s economy. Furthermore, as businesses continue to innovate and release ever-more-advanced 3D printers, whole ecosystems are created to support the new digital manufacturing economy. The economics of 3D printing have proved largely superior in plastic prototyping and are threatening plastic injection molding, with some companies’ sights also being set on metals, ceramics and even edible materials.
The following key principles are essential for supply chain management professionals and manufacturing organizations to consider in order to stay relevant in the digital manufacturing economy.
No design constraints
Because the 3D printing process builds objects layer by layer, it can make physical shapes that once were very difficult, if not impossible, such as hollow or interlocked objects and those with highly precise or complex internal structures. With a 3D printer, companies can manufacture objects that once only nature could create, which has opened vast, new design possibilities.
For example, there is a growing field that involves using artificial intelligence algorithms to augment the design process by finding optimal designs given engineering specifications. These shapes can be quite strange and often offer a very different perspective than what a human would come up with. The removal of typical constraints opens the possibility of creating designs that have higher performance while using less material. In addition, because simple and elaborate objects cost the same to make — as opposed to traditional mass manufacturing, where complex geometries are more expensive in terms of both time and skill — this adds to 3D printing’s disruptive influence.
Thermoplastics are the most common materials used in 3D printing. They are easy to work with and produce parts with comparable quality, speed and cost to those made with plastic injection molding. Plastic often is a good choice when prototyping as well as for creating a large number of industrial and consumer goods. Metals, ceramics and bio-compatible materials also are of great interest because they encompass many applications and industries. Each material has its unique challenges, including physical technology barriers, regulatory approval and achieving compelling economics.
However, as 3D printers continue to gain the capacity to print with different types of raw materials in a single print job, a new class of materials will emerge. Multi-material 3D printers can create precise blends, giving designers the ability to control elasticity, hardness and conductivity and enabling near endless combinations of material properties in a final product. Digitally designed and precisely printed blends of materials will offer varied and previously unseen solutions with special physical properties.
Assemblies are optional
A 3D printer can print a hinge, a bicycle chain or even a nested set of Russian Dolls in a single print job — no assembly required. Traditional manufacturing processes have limitations, so designers have become accustomed to using assemblies to overcome those constraints. 3D printing heightens design freedom and thus can eliminate the need to create assemblies. Moreover, fewer parts reduce the inventory burden and shorten supply chains.
Faster time to market
Most companies’ first endeavor into 3D printing is prototyping. This enables organizations to have faster design iterations compared with standard physical prototyping techniques. However, any difference in the manufacturing process of the prototyping technique and the final product’s process requires some sort of translation, procurement and investment, all of which lengthens the time to market. 3D printing offers many solutions to these issues and therefore is rapidly approaching breakeven economics for certain lengths of production runs.
Because there is significantly less setup time compared to traditional manufacturing, and multiple different products can be printed in a single job, 3D printing is uniquely suited to on-demand production. Finished goods can be made in direct response to customer demand. Companies will minimize the need to stockpile physical inventory and better match supply and demand to avoid excess and obsolescence costs. Consumers today expect faster product delivery times, and this trend is only going to continue as new technologies arise.
3D printing is sustainable
As mentioned previously, 3D printing is more precise because objects are created in added layers, rather than carving away a raw material or molding molten material into a solid shape. More of 3D printing’s raw materials end up in the product, instead of on the factory floor, significantly reducing the amount of waste and shrinking carbon footprints. Furthermore, optimized 3D printed objects often are lighter than traditionally manufactured goods.
Traditional manufacturing requires organizing capital and labor in a physical location that is practical for shipping products to customers. Traditional manufacturing therefore lends itself to centralized facilities that pool the capabilities of machines and people, enabling economies of scale. However, 3D printing lowers the barriers needed to set up a new manufacturing operation and offers more ubiquitous manufacturing locations closer to customers.
Smaller factory footprint
A traditional factory producing many different products requires a diverse set of machines, large amounts of capital, the ability to change tooling setup and more. However, a 3D printing factory has a smaller footprint because a single 3D printer can produce many different types of parts.
Blurred line between physical and digital
The ability of 3D printers to precisely carry out digital instructions will bring added design freedom and more malleability to the physical world. Like digital music and media, physical objects could be scanned into digital form and then edited, copied or redesigned. For this reason, expect an accelerated cat-and-mouse game between counterfeiters and companies alongside regulators trying to stop them.
Supply chain management analysts must learn how to perform various break-even calculations — including the length of production runs, lead time and product performance — when choosing between traditional and 3D printing manufacturing processes. Professionals will need to work more closely with research and development, marketing, and finance in order to influence manufacturing strategy and make the right decisions about which process is best in terms of cost and the capabilities it can enable for end products.
Implications for the supply chain management professional
3D printing relaxes and, in some cases, even removes constraints common to many supply chain management professionals. Inventory strategies, lead time assumptions and fixed-versus-variable cost trade-offs must be rethought. Furthermore, skill requirements will continue to evolve from that of specialized machine operators to versatile machine programmers and technicians. As 3D printing technology continues to develop, professionals also would be wise to stay abreast of newly enabled product solutions and expect more rapid prototyping to intensify interactions with product designers and manufacturing engineers.
Solution providers are racing to develop 3D printing technologies that can scale across multiple types of materials and industries. Areas of innovation include both 3D printing machines and materials, as well as the software used to design parts, manage the machines and securely transmit files across the globe. There is a tremendous opportunity to create business models at each node of the ecosystem.
3D printing will offer both an opportunity and threat to manufacturing enterprises. Company decision-makers who understand, adapt and reinvent themselves in the new world of 3D printing will be the ones to rewrite conventional manufacturing wisdom.
Want more? Learn about the four types of 3D printers.
Pedro Neto, Ph.D., is an analytical business consultant working in the areas of strategic planning and modeling at HP Inc. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Ray Ernenwein is director of supply chain strategy and analytics at Walmart. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.