What Could 3D Printing Mean for the Supply Chain?

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As much as I’d love to be able to deny it, the truth is that I’m a closet “Treky”. For me, it was the Captain Picard and  “The Next Generation”. One thing about the Star Trek franchise was that they actually did a pretty good job of predicting the future. I remember thinking at the time that if there was one  piece of fictional technology that I would like to become reality it was the replicator. But at the time, and even as recently as a couple of years ago, that didn’t seem like a possibility. But as with other aspects of the show, it looks like they may have predicted the future correctly again. While I may not be requesting a sandwich from my home replicator any time soon, 3D (3 Dimensional) printing has turned an idea that was completely fictional into an achievable reality. And with the recent announcement from Staples that they will start rolling out 3D printing services at their stores, that reality is becoming even more attainable. (See my colleague, Trevor Miles' post on this same topic last year) 3D printing was originally conceived as a way to more easily and quickly produce prototypes. One could argue that the technology is an evolution of the well-known ink-jet printer. With ink-jet printers, a very small stream of ink is sprayed onto paper to produce a printout. 3D printers operate in a similar manner, however instead of ink, they spray a small amount of basic materials such as plastics, ceramics, or metal  one layer at a time, over and over again to eventually produce the end product.  A detailed CAD (computer aided design) file is all that is needed to provide the printer with the instructions needed to produce the product. This technology clearly has the potential to completely revolutionize the manufacturing industry, and thus the supply chain industry.

With that in mind, I inevitably have to  replace my “Treky” hat with my “Product Manager” hat and start thinking about what effect this new reality will have on the classic supply chain. 3D printing has the potential to completely change (notice I said change, not replace) the model we know (and love?) today. So change is inevitable, the question that we need to answer is how will it change? One thing is for sure, the supply chain isn’t going away. As usual, it will likely just get more complicated.

Here are some of the areas that I propose will influence the supply chain as 3D printing becomes more and more mainstream, and I’m sure there are many more.

  • Local Manufacturing – More things will be made closer to their final destination. This will have definite impact on the logistics industry, and will change the way business try and schedule their operations.
  • Customizability – It will be easier, faster, and more efficient for companies to provide made-to-order products to their end users.
  • Distribution of raw materials – There will need to be a dramatic shift in the way raw materials are distributed since these printers will require raw materials in order to produce the final product.
  • New replacement parts model – Business will be able to provide replacement parts as required instead of trying to predict the need and manufacture the stock well in advance (as they do today)
  • Blurred boundaries within businesses – A closer integration of the various departments of an organization will be mandatory. A siloed manufacturing department will no longer allow for a competitive business.

My predictions may be right, or they may be wrong, but one thing I think all will agree on is that 3D printing will make the supply chain more complex and more difficult to manage. The companies that succeed through this transition will be the ones that adapt early and leverage the tools they need in order to manage this more complex supply chain. These tools will need to allow for tighter integration with all aspects of business from S&OP to Project Management to collaboration amongst suppliers and customers. Better visibility of the supply chain will be mandatory in order to understand how it is changing. But even more important will be the ability to analyze options and make proactive decisions based on the real data. The thought that someday I could be printing out my new pair of skis in the comfort of my own home is pretty amazing. If business embrace the transition and leverage the tools to manage this new supply chain reality, that day may be sooner then we think.    

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Kyle Ephraim
- June 03, 2013 at 1:03pm
Very interesting article! As a student at the University at Buffalo working on a Business Admin degree with a concentration in Supply Chain and Operations Management, as well as a minor in Environmental Studies, I am very intrigued by the concept of 3D printing as a way to help supply chains become more green. I can imagine the spare part supply process, at a minimum, will be impacted.

As a student I wonder, though -- how do you feel this technology will impact the Supply Chain / Logistics occupation? Seems like there is the potential for some significant changes in the future. I'm excited, but a little nervous!

Kyle Ephraim
Good read! | Kyle Ephraim
- June 07, 2013 at 6:12pm
[...] Good read! [...]
Andrew Bell
- June 14, 2013 at 3:21pm
I would agree, there is no doubt that this and other technological advancements will result in change to both the industry and those that work within it. I also agree that excitement is the right sentiment. These kinds of changes can result in great opportunities for those with new and innovative ways to help solve the problems that will no doubt arise.
Kyle Ephraim | Kyle Ephraim
- August 27, 2013 at 1:39pm
[...] Kyle Ephraim [...]

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