3D Printing Changes the Supply Chain

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I recently took a trip to my local big box electronics store, and saw a 3D printer on display. I asked what they were printing, and the response was “plastic components”, which were being sold in the store. The salesperson was busy, so I did not have the chance to find out exactly what those plastic components were, but I thought, wow, they can make parts for sale right there in the store. Retail is changing for sure. I then decided to do a little more checking on 3D printers when I got home. I learned about biofabrication, a recently created word that means the convergence between technology and medicine, to print items to be used in the human body. Living cells are used as the “printer ink”. Visions of the Terminator came to mind. I also discovered, from an article the Guardian that the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first 3D printed drug, called Spritam (levetiracetam). It controls seizures coming from epilepsy. The drug manufacturer, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, uses 3D printing to create a more porous pill. This means the pill dissolves more quickly with liquid, making it much easier for the patient to swallow higher doses. 3D printing has gone from a novelty to a serious industry, a predicted $16 billion industry by 2018 according to Canalys as stated in another article from the Guardian. Basically, it has become mobile. It has become additive manufacturing. An article in my local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had this interesting quote, “From aerospace to health care to consumer products to toys to medical devices, furniture ... what I think you’re going to see is an explosion of use.” A startup local Atlanta-based 3D printing company, CloudDDM, is looking to make an impact. Traditional manufacturing requires the creation of dies or molds that can cost thousands of dollars to create a prototype. 3D printing only requires a digital file with the design of an object, and the specialized “ink”. This also introduces a whole new issue to supply chain and the manufacturing process--protection of intellectual property (IP), in the form of the digital files being sent to 3D printers. Just as important as the prototype itself, is the thought and research behind the design. Printers can be a vast source of digital information based on the memory they possess. This creates a potential security issue. Atlanta is home to many Fortune 500 companies like Coca Cola, Home Depot and UPS. UPS has already thought about how 3D printing could affect its core business, which involves moving materials in the supply chain. They installed a 3D printer at a local high-profile store, which will be able to perform on-demand services. Their rationale was, if businesses can produce parts easily on-site, instead of off-shore or elsewhere domestically, that could impact the UPS global market for shipping and logistics and cut into revenue. To get ahead of the curve, UPS invested in the aforementioned CloudDDM. The two companies have jointly opened a facility near the UPS air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, with more than 100 industrial 3D printers. They can take an order in the afternoon for a 3D printed item and ship it overnight for arrival the next day. TNT Express, FedEx and Amazon are looking at investing in mobile 3D printing trucks, which could come to a site and start “manufacturing” on demand. This not only brings the manufacturing closer to home, it reduces the transportation costs and also shrinks the length of the supply chain. Local manufacturing, or on-demand, means creating only what is needed, as opposed to stocking materials and keeping an inventory, all of which need to be managed to optimize cost. Third party printing companies can now become value-added distributors and manufacturers. Also, if plastic or other “inks” are used that can be recycled, the waste is then reduced, and in turn lowers the cost even more. This puts a whole new stream of thought into the traditional supply chain. Take a company like Hershey, which produces massive amounts of chocolate candy in various forms. Using “chocolate ink”, they can get into new areas of specialized chocolate, and produce it anywhere, licensing the IP for the design of the object to be printed. The part of the supply chain that handles movement of goods from the traditional manufacturing plants to the retail outlets can again be shrunk, with management complexity being greatly reduced. Manufacturers in any industry will need to make their supply chains more agile and able to operate in real-time to cope with expedited production cycles. According to a statement on the Material Handling & Logistics News website from the Ed Morris, director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), "In terms of impact on inventory and logistics you can print on demand. Meaning you don't have to have the finished product stacked on shelves or stacked in warehouses anymore. This collapses the supply chain down to its simplest parts, adding new efficiency to the system." Traditional supply chain models are founded on constraints of the industry—the efficiency of mass production and the need for low-cost, high-volume assembly workers, real estate to house each stage of the process, and more. Additive manufacturing bypasses the traditional constraints. Raw materials become digital files and their associated IP. Whether 3D printing becomes a disruptive force to the traditional supply chain is no longer a hypothesis; it is a reality. Just a thought however, 3D printers require materials to use as ink. What about the supply chains to get the raw materials that comprise the “ink”? Doesn’t that pose an altogether different supply chain scenario to manage? That thought is enough to give me a headache. I think I’ll use my new 3D printer and make some aspirin.

What other ways can you see the rise of 3D printing impacting traditional supply chain practices? Let us know in the comments section.


Lauren Thibodeau
- November 18, 2015 at 10:46am
Thought provoking perspective!
- November 18, 2015 at 11:46am
Interesting stuff. I worked on a project to look at possibilities of 3d printing spare parts. With current technology it was not proving to be feasible, but when we look at the advancement in the past years, it isn't too far. I envision a time when companies will not sell operational spares with their product, but will provide the customer a .stl file that they may use to print the spare part at any 3d printing kiosk.
Yuran Jin
- November 18, 2015 at 8:59pm
In 3D printing background, changing the traditional supply chain model is the trend.
- November 19, 2015 at 10:37am
3D printing is an amazing technology, particularly as you mention, in the medical industry. I read an article the other day about 3-d printing organs! This technology has also positively effected the manufacturing industry by allowing for components to be made cheaply and quickly - I think it will have a profound impact on the supply chain.
Joel Natt
- November 25, 2015 at 1:41pm
The world is always changing. 3D Printing is just one aspect of this changing environment. Recently NASA admitted that they are planning to include these printers and the raw material (INK) needed to reduce component weight in future extended space flights. But remember it takes time to print and is not like the printer you get at the "Big Box" store as mentioned in Joe's article. So until the cost versus the time come down it will be like the Laser Printers of the 1980's and early 90's only for those that need to use them. But anyway remember welcome to Star Trek...
Sebastien Dovan
- November 25, 2015 at 3:29pm
The great thing about 3D printing is, you can create a design for a prototype part and print it, using desktop software, all for a fraction of the cost and time it took traditionally. So not only does it speed up the supply chain, but it speeds up innovation as well.
Gwynne Richards
- December 14, 2015 at 1:51pm
3D is an interesting phenomena however the idea of having a truck with a 3D printer standing by for an order seems an awful waste of manpower given the time it takes to print the simplest of items at the moment. IP will also be a huge issue.

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