Change is coming: How will 3D printing affect your Supply Chain?

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I recently had the great pleasure of teaching a group of new hires about manufacturing.  As I finished describing traditional manufacturing techniques we paused to discuss 3D printing and how 3D printing will change the face of manufacturing (note I said will…not if).  It was a great discussion and led me to think further about the impact 3D printing would have on the supply chain and supply chain planning. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing technique for making 3 dimensional solid objects from a digital file.  In additive manufacturing, items are created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. You may have the mistaken impression that 3D printers can only fashion little plastic toys. That couldn’t be further from the truth; in addition to plastic there are 3D printers that can make ceramic, metal, food, resin, glass, medical implants, concrete (there is even a 3D printed house), and electronic components. Currently, 3D printing is being used to create items for aviation and for NASA, prototype items for the automotive industry and approaches are being studied to use 3D printing in the medical space to create body parts such as noses and ears.  Recently, a team of researchers have even created a 3D printed organ. I’m not the first to discuss the impact of 3D printing on supply chain.  You can find other Kinaxis discussions here and here. So, let’s think about how 3D printing can impact your supply chain…

  • Spare Parts – Think about the challenges most companies face managing spare part inventories.  First, you need to forecast spare part demands which typically means understanding failure rates.  For new products, that can be a real challenge when you don’t have historical data to draw from.  Once you forecast the demands, then you need to build out the spare parts network – meaning that you need to have spares within reasonable shipping distance to the point of use… or risk providing poor service to a customer potentially already dealing with a defect causing them not to be able to use your product.Enter 3D printing.  Imagine now that you can strategically position a set of 3D printers around the world. Instead of sending parts, you simply provide the raw material (spools of plastic or metal, containers of powder or resin) and the electronic files. When the spare parts order comes in, you simply print the item and ship it out. Forecasting simply becomes an estimation as to how much raw material to buy – a much simpler calculation… Thinking further, the printer could actually be at the point of sale.  Imagine going into your dealership for a repair, and instead of having to wait a day or two for the repair part to show up, it could be printed and installed while you wait.
  • Prototyping – If you think about the traditional approach to designing new products, there is a large investment, a lengthy production time and a lot of risk involved in building prototypes. If there isn’t a dedicated prototype shop, the production facility is often disrupted by the creation of the prototype.  The reason to create a prototype is to test out a design in real life.  Given the costs and risks of prototype creation, often companies will limit the number of prototypes, thus often creating a less than ideal first version of the new design.  With 3D printing, prototypes are much simpler, take less time, cost significantly less and as a rule don’t impact the production facility.  As a result, rapid prototyping and iterative design become a possibility resulting in better products.
  • Component manufacturing – There is an interesting video from the “How It’s Made” TV show. In the video, the product being built is 3D printers.  The fascinating thing about this is that the machines used to build the printer’s components are 3D printers themselves.  If demand exceeds capacity, they simply build additional printers to increase capacity.  There is a lot of legal and copyright issues to be worked out, but imagine if a company produced many of its components with 3D printers, and imagine if they had a license agreement with the builder of the 3D printers that allowed them to build additional printers based on capacity need.  Imagine what this would do for capacity planning. The only real capacity limit would be the space available to house the printers.Aside from self-replicating manufacturing, 3D printers could have a significant impact on low volume manufacturing. Picture the traditional process oriented factory layout – cutting, drilling, milling, forming, etc.  Imagine the space each of those workstations need.  Now imagine them all replaced with a set of 3D printers and a robot at the end to do final assembly.
    • Setup time is reduced to the few seconds it takes to download a new design file.
    • Manufacturing is done in minimal lots so work-in-process inventory is non-existent.
    So much of the complexity of manufacturing planning and control systems simply goes away.  From a green perspective, you aren’t cutting, or milling or stamping so scrap material simply doesn’t exist.
  • Distribution – This may be a few years out, but imagine the ability to simply print a product at point of use.  Imagine walking into the Apple store and placing an order for a new phone. While you get your service provider contracts figured out the phone is printing in the back. A short time later a phone is presented to you hot off the press (so to speak).  Talk about the ultimate postponement strategy – you don’t make the product until the order comes in! Forecasting and demand planning become a much less critical component.  Distribution?  Not an issue.  Simply be sure that each store has an adequate supply of raw materials and a few printers and you are done!

While I believe 3D printing is going to revolutionize supply chain, I think that it may be some time before the 3D printed future becomes a reality.  In truth, there are still a lot of complex details to figure out;

  • Some complex shapes are difficult to print.  For example, unsupported spans can be very troublesome.
  • Electronic printing is crude at best right now.
  • High strength requirements (structural components for example) might be difficult to 3D Print
  • Manufacturing speed is limited.  High volume production can churn out product by the thousands.  3D printers currently could not achieve that throughput.
  • Even with very experienced operators, converting a 3D design into a physical object can be challenging.

But change is coming and when it does, the supply chain and supply chain planning will need to change too. What do you think? Comment back and let us know.

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