3D Printing and Its Effect on the Supply Chain

3D printing is starting to make waves within manufacturing and production processes and it comes with its own preconceptions. We typically have in mind what we think of in terms of 3D printing. Many of us understand the basic process in terms of building layers of an object using liquid plastic which then solidifies. This has a technical term: fused deposition modelling. Others will envisage a different process – additive manufacturing – where the same layering approach occurs but this time using powdered components such as plastic or metal.

These processes are different from each other. Nonetheless, they share common traits which set them firmly apart from traditional manufacturing methods. The differences between traditional methods include:

  • It is non-specific: Technically the same equipment can be used for different items. You don’t need new moulds or new tools, you simply change the design file.
  • It is slower: Typical manufacturing methods are all about speed as this maximises quantity. 3D printing, due to the layering, is an inherently slower process.
  • It’s less restrictive: Whatever you conceive, you can design it to print. This isn’t the case with traditional manufacturing methods where more limitations exist.
  • It is more expensive: The cost per item is typically higher than mould-based methods.

How do these differences impact the entire lifecycle of the product?

3D Printing and Its Effect on Lifecycle Management

Looking at the list of differences above, it’s easy to see how on one hand the process is simpler, yet on the other, it is more convoluted, expensive and complicated. It’s possible to create any object without needing to plan how components will fit and work together as they are created as one. In many ways, 3D printing allows you to work outside of the constraints that traditional manufacturing, by its limitations, imposes.

What we are seeing is how 3D printing is, therefore, coming to play a crucial role at the prototype stage of the manufacturing process. The power goes into the hands of the designers.

It’s further down the line, for example, with the raw material, where costs escalate. However, this may not be so true when you consider raw materials which are typically extremely expensive. We’ve seen this with the use of sintered titanium in the aircraft industry. Here stronger components created with less waste can drive cost-effectiveness.

When costs are reduced in this way we can see how 3D printing moves away from only being suitable at the prototype stage to being valuable in manufacturing itself. Profitability drives whether it is worthwhile.

Looking further along in the lifecycle of a product, 3D printing can also make it more possible to access spare parts. These parts are more typically needed ‘on demand’ and can, therefore, be printed as needed, rather than manufactured in batches.

The Impact on the Supply Chain

This could spell revolutionary change for the supply chain in terms of where and how you undertake manufacturing. Manufacturing and production could now, conceivably, occur much closer to the physical location that it is needed. Production and manufacturing can become decentralised. It’s the design files which need to be in the right place at the right time, not large cumbersome moulds and production plants.

It’s also possible, with 3D printing, to run much shorter runs of a part or a product which feeds positively into our drive for just-in-time inventories. Whereas stock-piling parts has been necessary because of the economies of scale of mass production, this is not necessary with 3D printing. You can order the parts that you need when you need them.

This won’t work for everyone and every business. However, what it is doing is allowing newer start-ups, without the reserves of cash to invest in manufacturing, to get started. They can start producing much sooner than when they would have had to rely on traditional methods. This allows excellent scope for refining and improving their product multiple times without being constrained by a manufacturing process which is difficult to change once set. The testing process becomes part of manufacturing itself.

This is quite a radical shift from traditional manufacturing and has an impact at various points in the supply chain. It makes just-in-time deliveries a reality with products being created one-by-one to order.

What this does is shorten the supply chain with the gaps between the different ‘links’ of the supply chain become foggy and less well defined. Assembly is reduced or becomes obsolete altogether. The need for multiple suppliers is reduced putting more control in the hands of the producer.

Barriers to Entry for 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing

It’s tempting to think that 3D printing is the solution to all manufacturing requirements. However, in reality, this isn’t the case at all.

At the moment not all inventory items will have been digitised and created into a 3D design file. There is legwork that needs to be done in terms of scanning components and parts to create the file needed. This is also problematic because there is no uniform additive manufacturing equipment. You will still have the problem that one machine cannot ‘read’ the design created for another. There is no standardised file type.

This is also new technology. In manufacturing, we’re confident in our knowledge of how long materials last. With additive manufacturing, we don’t have this information available to us. This is complicated by not being sure whether items produced in this way can, or will, meet industry safety standards and how this will be managed.

The Future of 3D Printing in the Supply Chain

However, there’s no doubting that this is an interesting area to watch. Some industries, for example, aircraft maintenance and repair, stand clearly and easily to benefit from 3D printing.

As the process is used more, the systems will become more accessible and applicable to a wider range of industries. Some will still find it more cost-effective to retain typical manufacturing processes, in part due to the cost of materials. Others will find that security and accessibility of 3D printing will improve to the degree that it makes it valuable for their niche. It could even make zero inventory a reality.

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Tamsin Giles, Client Service Coordinator, contact photo

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