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Will 3D printing transform the supply chain?

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Tipped to be a ‘seismic’ opportunity for a range of manufacturers and businesses alike, 3D printing is making waves in supply chains. Is the phenomenon a threat or an opportunity for the future of supply chains as it changes the needs of companies?

© Joseph Morris (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Used to generate products from guns and engine parts to models and human organs, 3D printing could be soon to change the global supply chains as we know it. Otherwise known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves creating a blueprint of a product and generating it through a printer using different materials, in-situ.

Though the idea was created in the 1980s, it was not until around 2010 that the printers became available commercially, throwing up opportunities and threats to supply managers, businesses and the everyday consumer. Rather than ordering a new part for your car or washing machine, having access to a 3D printer, the raw materials needed, and the blueprint, you could create the part you need yourself, whenever you need it, eliminating the need to order it from across the world.

At first glance, it would appear that 3D printing would be attractive to medium-sized enterprises, as they would be able to cut costs by producing their own products in-house using an available design, or work with 3D printing businesses nearby to support corporate responsibility aims, and would save time ordering them in. It could also help companies cut costs in prototyping their own products, making the time from design to launch quicker.

Although it does not directly affect their supply chains at present, Naiem Dakri, MD of Switched On Products estimates that the company saved around five months of time by being able to do the design and testing in the UK during product development and testing.

They also plan to use the technology for “small-scale production runs of low-volume products to eliminate the need for costly moulds.”

This method of printing generates less waste of material, allows for custom-made products without extensive redesigning, and openly shared designs are growing exponentially.

There could be a humanitarian aspect to 3D printing, by way of producing cheaper replicas of equipment using computer-aided design for use in developing countries. Here, local supply chains can be generated from scratch, boosting local and national economies.

Joshua Pearce, a materials science and engineering professor at Michigan Technology University in the US has produced research based on the idea of a colourimeter for water testing.According to his estimates, the printable version would cost just $50, instead of $2000, and it worked just as well with raw materials that can be easily sourced in developing countries.

The same techniques can be applied to other companies, he told Business Reporter. 3D printers can often use the same raw materials as conventional production, but “it allows you to cut out all the middlemen and their mark-ups, and can be an enormous saving.”

Therefore, argues Professor Yossi Sheffi, also at MIT, “supply chains that support the flow of products and parts to consumers will vanish, to be replaced by supply chains of raw material.”

Last year, Professor Pearce conducted research that showed that an investment in a 3D printer for everyday household would be economically viable, and on an example of creating 20 items per year, could save between $300 and $2000.

In the aerospace and defence sectors which currently are adopting non-safety based components in some of their planes, Michael Minall, director at Vendigital explained that companies will need to radically change their rigid supply chain strategy. While having the right raw materials could mean that a “new part could be installed and the aircraft ready to fly the same day,” it will require a shift from the current “established global network” to a “super-local model” to get parts at short notice, in the local area.

“It’s an industry-wide challenge that needs to be addressed,” he says. “The benefits could be huge, but the high barriers of regulation, accreditation and traceability and a system that works well already” mean that some are reluctant to investigate into solutions that might alter their safety credibility.

Additive printing also enables custom-made designs to be tailored, which for the aerospace manufacturers, components can be made lighter. Mr Minall says that “trends towards consumer personalisation and choice which can’t be delivered through mass production” could lead the way to companies developing an advantage over their competitors, while saving money at the same time.

On the other hand, some argue that as 3D printing is still in its early years, the final products are not of the same quality as the originals. Therefore supply chains may not be affected as much as first thought as many are sceptical of its effectiveness and suitability.

“There is a bizarre hype around it,” says the man in charge of 3D Print UK, Nick Allen. “On the prototyping side it makes sense, and for low volume manufacturing it’s good. But for manufacturing your product, there’s a real difference in quality. It’s slower, and doesn’t stack up financially for big orders. It won’t change much for global supply chains, but for low-volume local ones, it can make a difference.”

Contrary to the MIT research into domestic 3D printing, Mr Allen does not see the phenomenon taking off in the home: “Humans buy cheap things, which they can get quickly. I hope I’m wrong but I can’t see people wanting to reduce supply chains to their own homes once the novelty has worn off.”

He also raised issues around the liability of companies who give out their designs for 3D printing, and expressed concern that they may be reluctant to lose profits to consumer printing and still be responsible for faulty products that the company did not themselves create. In aerospace, however, the intellectual property rights remain with the manufacturer of the plane, who would be able to provide the designs, and thus create different supply chains.

Supporting the idea that 3D printing can be good for one-off productions is the work of Nora Fok, an artist and jewellery design. She used 3D printing for both the prototyping and manufacturing to create a limited edition collection of 120 affordable bracelets for The Harley Gallery based on her artwork made from nylon microfilament.

“My work is very labour intensive; from design to finish it can take me six months, and the pieces value between £2,500 and £4,000,” she says. “I made an exhibition, with accompanying affordable items and they sold out very quickly.”

While 3D printing is still in its infancy, it is difficult to accurately predict its effects on supply chains, both local and global. The possibilities are extensive, and while many industries are just beginning to dip their toes into the water, it is clear that both for prototyping and manufacturing products; 3D printing is a huge challenge to supply chains. Yet, it could also give competitive advantages and cut costs across sectors, depending on individual company and product requirements.


Photo © Joseph Morris (CC BY-ND 2.0)


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