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What you may not know about 3D printing in the supply chain

Posted by CeMAT Team on 02-Feb-2018 10:00:00

What you may not know about 3D printing in the supply chain

 Manufacturing in recent years has been punctured with the rise of a new technology that is said to be so disruptive that it will change almost everything about how we create products and components.

You’ve probably heard of it too, but it’s not your everyday new technology. 3D printing has such a promising future that even the former president of the United States is impressed:

 "3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything." - President Barack Obama, State of the Union Speech 2013

If you’re unsure about the imminent proliferation of 3D printers, then here are a few facts and figures: 

  • In 2015, over 278,000 desktop 3D printers (under $5000) were sold
  • 57% of all 3D printing work is done in the first phases of product development
  • 55% of respondents to the State of 3D Printing 2017 survey stated they would spend more on 3D printing in 2017
  • 47% of companies surveyed have seen a greater ROI on their 3D printing investments this year

These are impressive figures and a truly astounding representation of how new technologies have the potential to totally disrupt entire industries. According to MH&L News, complicated global supply chains could potentially become obsolete in ten years with the use of additive manufacturing (alternatively known as 3D printing).

Additive manufacturing has been an integral component of manufacturing since 1986, and today, it can be used to print basically anything from plastic utensils to titanium component parts. It’s no wonder that President Obama has given 3D Printing such high accolades: it literally has the power to change the manufacturing industry irrevocably.

This post explores why 3D printing in the supply chain will be a key component to success in the future.



What is additive manufacturing?

If you’ve seen the popular children’s animation, Shrek, then you’ll be familiar with the idea that “onions have layers” and this serves as an apt metaphor for additive manufacturing. To make the process of additive manufacturing as simple to understand as possible, it’s the process that occurs when technologies build layers of material upon other layers to form a whole proverbial onion.

This process requires computer programs with 3D modelling capabilities that understands how to translate a design into a whole printed object. In short: additive manufacturing is the creation of solid objects and parts printed from a digital file.

Compare this to traditional manufacturing where purpose-built machines fashion metal or plastic pieces to be put together at a later phase. Traditional methods are less flexible and produce a lot of waste that’s milled from raw materials. But less waste isn’t the only upside to 3D printing, we look comprehensively at the benefits and risk of this promising technology below.



The benefits of 3D Printing enabled supply chains

Savvy business owners don’t always just on the bandwagon of new technologies. In fact, if you’re looking to invest, one of the first questions you should ask is “is this relevant to me?” There is no question that digital technologies are beneficial to all supply chains, however you would need to weigh up the costs and benefits of something like 3D printing:


Save money and achieve economies of scale   

Lately we’ve posted a few different articles on inventory management tactics and strategies to help mitigate the impact of stock catastrophes (see our latest one on warehouse algorithms here). But what if we told you, you never had to worry about inventory management again?

Well, not really, but 3D will make it a hell of a lot easier. If you invest in an industrial 3D printer, you’ll be able to fabricate products wherever your customers are, and then customise these products in real time to reduce inventory, shipping costs and capital expenditure.

If a company were to strategically replace factories with 3D in selected markets, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that you would transform your customer experience while also gaining efficiency and added revenue. According to Deloitte, additive manufacturing also assists businesses in efficiently achieving economies of scale. For example, you can reduce the spend required to reach minimum efficient scale for production.



Save time going to market

Can you remember when Netflix was a DVD rental service? Before they pivoted as a streaming service in 2013, they were busy stealing $1bn in revenue from Blockbuster and Hollywood Video by tapping into the inner laziness of people. Netflix as so successful because it began mailing DVDs to people’s home in their iconic red envelopes.


Netflix is one of the most successful stories for a business pivot, and to this day they have pivoted again to become one of the most prominent content producers in television. You might be asking, what does this have to do with anything? Netflix was so successful because they remain incredibly flexible and responsive to their customers’ needs and wants; and 3D printers can offer business this very same flexibility.

Drastically reduce your time coming to market from a matter of months to days simply by utilising 3D printing technology. You’ll also save time in every stage of the product development cycle because you’ll be able to print a prototype the very same day as the idea was conceived.

This means you’ll be able to test ideas quickly and if the idea fails you haven’t wasted months of capital and resources when you discard the product. On top of this, you won’t be constrained to current machinery limitations: square holes? No problem!



Privilege customisation over commodities


According to the Smithsonian, having a 3D printer is “Walmart in the palm of your hand.” 3D printers can move us away from mass manufacturing and provide customers with a more democratic form of design. Your customer has requested studs to be added to the guitar? No problem! Your customers are a very rare shoe size? No problem! 

The Smithsonian also reported how 3D printing can be used in regenerative medicine to grow new body parts, but we’re still a few years away from that level of customisation. 

The future of 3D printing is astoundingly promising, but it doesn’t come without it’s risks. Check out a few of the risks associated with this exciting new technology below.



The risks of 3D printing

Unfortunately, nothing in life is too good to be true and 3D is no exception. There are a few risks associated with this budding new technology, and governments across the world are scrambling to keep up with the regulatory consequences.

Firstly, let’s look at increased taxes. 3D printed items aren’t exempt from taxes. So depending on the scale of your business, any incurred taxes may untangle the profitability and efficiency of additive manufacturing.

As with most digital technologies there are also cyber and intellectual property risks associated with 3D printing. Objects for print need to be designed using computer-aided drafting (CAD) software first, and many of these programs contain proprietary information. The theft of this kind of information could mean your products are copied and then released on the market faster and more cheaply than your products (this actually happened to a Kickstarter last year).

3D printing is a skill just like anything else, and without practice and the appropriate knowledge it’s easy to make technology errors that can result in product failures. It would be recommended to understand how the technology works and how to use it before implementing it in your business strategy to be sure that you can get the printer to do exactly what you want it to.



Final words

We’re currently sitting on the cusp of a technological age where if our phone case breaks, we can simply print a new one from a design that can be downloaded from the internet. Even though 3D printers have been used in industrial settings for nearly 30 years, computer-directed modelling has now improved to the point where you can now find these printers popping up in offices all over the globe.

Additive manufacturing in the supply chain is both promising and complex; on one hand you have access to a technology that can introduce extreme efficiencies and scales of economies into your manufacturing processes, however on the other hand it is a difficult technology to master and poses cyber security and intellectual property risks.

Only you can know for sure if 3D printing is for you. Do you think 3D printers have the ability to make traditional complex global supply chains obsolete? Let us know in the comments below.

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