Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been around in one shape or form for a while. The process essentially entails building a three-dimensional object from computer-aided design (CAD) to add material layer by layer until a final product is complete. The use cases for 3D printing cover most anything you can imagine. In fact, recently, while on a weekend ski trip with friends, my buddy John was riding the chairlift with two women from France who worked for a company that specialized in 3D printing human organs. However, these 3D printed organs were not meant to be used for transplants. Instead, these 3D printed organs were used as replicas of human organs to practice complex surgeries.
This conversation got me thinking about the pros and cons of 3D printing, and how as supply chain professionals, it fits into our everyday lives. In the grand scheme of things, 3D printing’s effect on the supply chain can be summarized as the following: warehouses no longer need to keep as many parts in stock. The rationale is that the parts can simply be printed on an as-needed basis. Along these lines of thinking, this would seem to be especially true for the replacement parts industry. However, does this actually make sense and is it a soon-to-be reality?
One of the biggest questions with additive manufacturing is how long it will take to print what is need. Clearly this depends on the complexity of the item that needs to be printed. It also depends on the speed settings of the printer, the size of the item, the type of 3D printer being used, the print quality settings, and infill density. As the technology has improved, the time it takes to print things has decreased. For example, recent printing times include:
- 2×4 Lego: 4 minutes
- Cell Phone Case: 20 minutes
- Baseball (with infill 15%): 2 hours
- Small toys: 1-5 hours depending on complexity
So how does all of this impact the supply chain? Companies are beginning to explore on-demand manufacturing rather than traditional manufacturing models. A digital representation of parts means that manufacturers can make small changes to the digital file quickly at no additional charge. This can provide more agility in the manufacturing process. For spare parts, this also means that warehouses can carry less physical inventory but potentially more SKUs for rapid replenishment.
3D printing can also have a positive environmental effect. As mentioned above, companies are exploring the on-demand manufacturing process. This means that instead of manufacturing an item and shipping it to a warehouse or customer, the digital file can be sent instead. Then, the item can be 3D printed on-site. This will reduce costs associated with shipping items as well as the negative environmental impact of shipping goods.
Additive manufacturing can result in the complete restructuring of supply chains. While the technology may not be there now, in the future, everything could be very different. I drive an older model car as our secondary car. Recently, I needed to have the thermostat switch knob replaced. My local garage was able to track it down; it was one of 12 left in stock in the entire country. Now imagine if my garage could have simply downloaded the digital file and printed a new knob for me. The time to replace the knob would have been quicker and the garage would not have needed to rely on a warehouse based in Pennsylvania to overnight the part to them. Instead, my garage could have simply printed a new knob for me and replaced it. This is precisely where the made to order manufacturing market can benefit from 3D printing.
Aside from reduced on-hand inventory, 3D printing could have an impact on supplier consolidation in the industry. While the example of my car above demonstrated that my local garage could have printed the part, not every business out there is going to want to invest in a 3D printer. Instead, however, we could easily see a switch where the number of suppliers for a given market is consolidated into a relatively few companies that have 3D printing capabilities. This could streamline the replenishment process for spare parts providers.
Another example of what the future holds is when a spare parts company dispatches someone to make a repair. If the 3D printing process continues to improve and the time necessary to print a part continues to be reduced, parts technicians could potentially print a new part while driving to a customer site. This would be especially beneficial for home service calls where the technician is unsure of what part they might need. Rather than stocking the truck with every part that could possibly used or needing to order a part while on the job site, they could print parts on the way or at the customer site. However, given time constraints, we are still quite a way away from this process.
One of the biggest things to remember in all of this is that the quality will not be the same with printed parts. This does not necessarily mean that the printed parts will be substandard. In some cases, 3D printed parts may be of better quality. However, for others, the quality will be lower. Either way, the quality will not be the same as the original parts.
The 3D printing market has continued to expand, especially given the advances in additive manufacturing capabilities. The supply chain seems like a ripe industry for the picking as the process can help companies to reduce overall inventory carrying costs and consolidate suppliers. However, there is something to be said about the overall quality of manufactured parts, and the 3D process will not give companies the same quality. Either way, additive manufacturing is improving by leaps and bounds and could have a significant impact on the supply of the near future.