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3D printing is changing the way we live, work and play in the modern world. Specifically, it is disrupting and transforming the way manufacturing systems works across the world, which is in turn having a direct effect on the global supply chain.

As we move through what many are calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – marked by more use of 3D printing across all industries, artificial intelligence, renewable energy innovations, and enhanced global connectivity amongst other technological advances – the global supply chain is undergoing a dramatic shift.

UK-based Simon Knowles, Chief Marketing Officer at Maine Pointe says, “The industry is making rapid advancements and it’s only a matter of time before we see it significantly impacting global supply chains and operations.” Moreover, according to the Global Supply Chain Institute (GSCI), some supply chain professionals predict 3D printing will eventually rival the impact of Henry Ford’s assembly line.

As Matthias Heutger, Senior Vice President Strategy, Marketing & Innovation at DHL, says, 3D printing presents an opportunity to “do things differently”. She explains, “It allows us to profoundly rethink the way we create and manufacture products, as well as fundamentally reassess the design of supply chains.”

The 3D Printing Impact

The economic implications of 3D printing are profound. Indeed, the consultancy firm McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that it could have an impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025.

While additive manufacturing has been used for prototyping for decades, it is now playing a chief role in production processes too, and it is imperative that businesses and industries at large learn to adapt to such modifications if they are to flourish in this new age of manufacturing technology. Since, even if your business is not 3D printing itself, its increased usage generally will have wider implications on global supply chain management.

According to Supply Chain 24/7, 3D printing has the potential to become the biggest single disruptive factor to impact global industry since assembly lines were introduced in early twentieth century America.

In light of such innovation, 3D printing offers a number of benefits for companies, including:

  • Reducing product development time
  • Eliminating costs of excess tools and equipment
  • Decreasing waste
  • Streamlining production processes

This of course is in addition to allowing for a greater range in end products that weren’t previously available on the market.

Transforming Global Supply Chains

By 2020, Supply Chain 24/7 predicts that potentially up to 80% of finished products will involve some kind of 3D printing. Furthermore, data from Stratasys shows that 42% of manufacturers expect 3D printing to be used for high-volume production in the next three to five years.

Indeed, the potential capabilities of 3D printers in terms of potential materials and hardware is ever expanding. As outlined by the transportation company Cerasis:

3D printers can build larger components and achieve greater precision and finer resolution at higher speeds and lower costs. Together, these advances have brought the technology to a tipping point—it appears ready to emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications.

Rapid prototype account manager with Javelin Technologies, Doug Angus Lee agrees that 3D printing is going to change the way manufacturing works in the future:

When the web took off, it gave us the tools for everybody to become a publisher. That was something only a few of the biggest companies in the world were able to do before. Well, with 3D printing, we’re all able to become manufacturers.

Such advances will inevitably transform the traditional supply chain.

Chuck Intrieri, a highly experienced and credentialed Supply Chain Management professional, believes the conventional supply chain model is founded on age old constraints of the industry. However, 3D printing isn’t reliant on such constraints. He explains:

3-D printing finds its value in the printing of low volume, customer-specific items, items that are capable of much greater complexity than is possible through traditional means. This includes hollow structures like GE’s fuel nozzles that would normally be manufactured in pieces for later assembly. This at once eliminates the need for both high volume production facilities and low level assembly workers, thereby cutting out at least half of the supply chain in a single blow.

Today, many raw product materials for end line products are the digital files from which they are created, whilst the hardware/machinery that create them are more advanced than ever before.

3D Printing Grants Consumers More Control

Where supply chains have traditionally followed the SCOR model (plan, source, make, deliver, return), 3D printing is putting consumers in the driver’s seat. Historically, consumers were willing to wait weeks for a product to be delivered to their homes, but in 2019, they want their new products yesterday. Many customers will even pick a product based on speed of delivery and that’s where companies like Amazon have tapped into this new time sensitive market. If time is of the essence, 3D printing has a place at the table and it’s holding its own.

Furthermore, additive manufacturing enables consumers or businesses to have a greater say in the final format of the product which they are buying – be it a particular car, item of furniture or piece of medical equipment – and have it manufactured to their unique specifications.

Looking further ahead, certain household products could even start to be printed at home as standard, which would have an even greater knock on effect for the global supply chain.

Reducing Waste and Cutting Cost

At present, hundreds of millions of spare parts are stored across the world to service products from all industries, sometimes for years. Main Pointe estimated that up to 90% of original block of material can be wasted in traditional, subtractive production methods. Although most spare parts warehouses have a high proportion of fast-moving items, many items will rarely or never be used.

Not only is it costly for companies to store this unnecessary stock, but it builds inefficiency into the supply chain, as excess inventory is being produced with no guarantee that it will ever be sold on to the consumer. Thanks to 3D printing, companies may no longer need to store spare parts physically in a warehouse. Instead, they can print these parts on demand, upon receipt of an order, and quickly deliver these items direct to the customer. This is more efficient and aids in the green industrial revolution.

In addition, using digital files allows for constant replication of products at significantly reduced cost. By referring to an original design, there is less risk of differentiation across a brand if consistency is the objective and more control over the production process. Still, because of the way in which each product is individually manufactured in 3D printing processes, it is also ideal for mass customization techniques too.

Bottom Line

For many reasons, the traditional supply chain model makes less sense today than ever before. It doesn’t seem economically smart or fundamentally practical to send products across the world from a remote factory to the customer since manufacturing can take place anywhere at the same or potentially at a lower cost, with less waste, and greater customization if required, thanks to 3D printing techniques.

Businesses should feel encouraged by the advances in 3D printing and should not feel intimidated by its impact on the global supply chains. With opportunities for a deeper connection to the customer, reduced carbon footprint, and more localized manufacturing and delivery services, companies must harness the potential of additive manufacturing if they are to succeed in the years to come.

As stated by Intriere: “The [global supply chain] demands a new model—a need to go local, globally.”

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