APICS is the premier professional association for supply chain management.

Preparing for the Third Industrial Revolution

by APICS CEO Abe Eshkenazi, CSCP, CPA, CAE | N/A 2012 | 0 | 0

APICS Operations Management Now | APICS CEO Abe EshkenaziAbout a year ago, I was watching a science program on television. NASA astronauts and engineers were talking about maintaining the International Space Station. Because of the limited storage capacity of the station and the vehicles that service it, it’s tough to get needed parts, especially prior to actually needing them. It’s not like an astronaut can simply place an Amazon order and get free next-day shipping. One promising solution mentioned was a 3D printer, which uses a high-resolution computer model to build parts by adding substances one layer at a time.

This isn’t science fiction. It’s happening today, and it’s coming to manufacturing’s doorstep. Consider an article that ran last week in the Guardian, a UK newspaper. “Up until now, manufacturing has been dominated by economies of scale. The upfront costs of ‘tooling up’ to manufacture anything__whether it’s roller bearings or automobiles__using conventional materials and assembly methods are huge, so you have to stamp out many thousands of identical products in order to get the price of each one down to a reasonable level,” writes John Naughton. “With 3D printing, the tooling-up costs are much less.”

Engineering.com further defines 3D printing__a term that overlaps with the concepts of additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping__as the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies.”

The impending impact is enormous, creating a shift from mass production to what some call “mass customization.” Last month, the Economist named 3D printing as one of the major contributors to the third industrial revolution, with applications that are “mind boggling”__from hearing aids to military aircraft. 

Supply chains, too, will have to adjust to accommodate this disruptive technology. Take the example given by the Economist: “An engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it. The days when projects ground to a halt for want of a piece of kit, or when customers complained that they could no longer find spare parts for things they had bought, will one day seem quaint.”

The new world is here

While an interesting development, you may doubt that 3D printing will directly influence your work life. However, this revolutionary technology promises short- and long-term changes to fundamental manufacturing ideas, such as lean, scheduling, capacity, setup, prototyping, and much more. 

Think of the definition of “engineer-to-order” from the APICS Dictionary, 13th edition: “Products whose customer specifications require unique engineering design, significant customization, or new purchased materials. Each customer order results in a unique set of part numbers, bills of material, and routings.” What 3D printing represents is the potential to make engineer-to-order goods commonplace.  

Are you ready to speak the new language of supply chain and operations management? Can you aid your company in determining how it can leverage new technologies like 3D printing to gain market share and boost the bottom line?

APICS can help. The 2012 APICS International Conference & Expo will feature a breakout session on disruptive technology. Additionally, many speakers will discuss what the future holds for supply chain and operations management experts. Lastly, APICS 2012 provides an excellent networking opportunity for you and your peers to explore what’s really happening in your field. It’s time to prepare yourself and your company for the third industrial revolution.

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