Additive Manufacturing and Its Influence On the Supply Chain

Additive manufacturing is a technological advancement in which computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners are used to create lighter and stronger parts. This technique allows precise objects to be made from a digital design with structures being created out of thousands of minuscule layers.  Within the manufacturing operation, a layering process is applied where the joining of materials required to create the object is completed layer-by-layer – this is opposed to traditional manufacturing where the material is usually carved or shaped.

There are a number of manufacturing techniques which come under the banner of additive manufacturing. The most common is 3D printing but there are other techniques such as VAT photopolymerisation, material jetting, binder jetting, powder bed fusion and direct energy deposition. More techniques are being developed and this highlights that additive manufacturing has an interesting future ahead.

There are many benefits to investing and using additive manufacturing. The main advantage is that the process is able to produce a greater range of shapes compared to conventional manufacturing where it may not be possible to create an entire part. For example, parts that have a hollow centre can’t be achieved in one single piece in conventional manufacturing, but it is achievable with additive manufacturing, with the additional benefit that the part will be considered superior because it doesn’t have any weak spots.

Another advantage is that the technique is considered much faster. Designs which are done using CAD can be changed quickly as opposed to traditional manufacturing methods where engineering meetings would be required to push through changes. Additive manufacturing also has the capability in some instances to produce prototypes overnight, so is also considered to be much more flexible.

It is, therefore, no surprise that additive manufacturing will have a big impact on the way that the supply chain functions. These changes are predominantly positive for all parties concerned from the consumer to the manufacturer right through to the brand.

The technique will also continue to push supply chains towards just-in-time, distributed manufacturing and this alone will have the following impacts:

A reduction in manufacturing costs and locational changes

Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printers are not required to be housed in huge warehouses that have the capability to run large-scale assembly operations. This means that manufacturing companies can now be located nearer the point of consumption. For example, a company which provides the construction industry with parts could locate close to a construction site that they do business with. This gives them the capability to print/manufacture the spares for their client’s heavy machinery as and when required reducing the downtime for their client’s high-value assets.

The ability to localise printing and distribution

As we have touched on in the point above, locally-housed printers can be located in a customer’s region. Therefore, when a customer orders a part or spare online, it can be printed on a local printer. This also means that local transport can be used which could be more cost-effective.

Provide a consolidation of the supply chain

In additive manufacturing, multiple-part assemblies can now be replaced by single, printed parts which leads to a consolidation in the supply chain. This consolidation occurs because less assembly work is required in the production process to make a finished product. It may also result in more parts being produced by single vendors or single printers, therefore, reducing the need for approved vendor lists.

Require no inventory for spare parts

There are many products such as vehicles and industrial machinery that have long life spans. In the past, these long life-cycles have led to the products being supported by their own inventory stores. However, these inventories require expensive storage and when required, high delivery costs. With additive manufacturing, the parts can be made on-demand and shipped when required. This, therefore, eliminates the need for an inventory storage.

Reduce times to market

Speed to market is increased with additive manufacturing. This is great news for markets where customer demand varies and the opportunity to market is short because this manufacturing method delivers new products to the market faster.

Push the development of digital ecosystems

By its nature, additive manufacturing is about digital processes and it therefore pushes the development of digital ecosystems. This will, in turn, make the entire manufacturing process more agile and attractive to manufacturers as digital networks connect every aspect of a product’s life, leading to a reduction in the time-to-market as well as improved design.

Support low volume and mass customisation

Additive manufacturing is the easiest way to ensure low-volume build. This means that some products that would have previously never got off the drawing board can be produced. In the past, a low-volume build won’t have been cost-efficient. The manufacturing technique also delivers the potential for mass customisation and personalisation to scale due to slightly different parts being able to be produced at scale.

We can, therefore, see that additive manufacturing is going to have a huge impact on not only how we manufacture products but also on where the products are manufactured.  The manufacturing technique is going to drive through many digital transformational changes within the industry as it gains in momentum. What can be predicted is that the supply chain is going to become more digital, visible, traceable as well as flexible and agile.

It will be important for all manufacturing businesses and their wider counterparts to assess their current manufacturing practices. It will be up to them to embrace the changes that are coming to ensure that they can succeed. It will be vital that they adapt to changes to ensure that their business doesn’t get adversely disrupted or affected.

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Tamsin Giles, Client Service Coordinator, contact photo

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