Conventional manufacturing methods have always employed popularly known converting techniques such as subtractive processes, when a final product is produced by performing conversion of larger input raw material. Likewise, conventional printing has always been two dimensional or 2D without the depth dimension.
3D printing encompasses any such activity where suitable materials are added together or unionized to form three-dimensional widgets or objects; hence the term additive manufacturing. Universally, the digital design of the final product is contained in a digital file such as a CAD file. The digital designs are either coded using 3D modeling software or scanned using a 3D scanner. The objects are produced layer-by-layer using additive manufacturing techniques like fused deposition modeling, sheet lamination, etc. Rapid prototyping is enabled through 3D printing as the tools used like filaments and print heads are not product specific.
Though 3D printing in supply chain is a disruptive element of Business 4.0, it’s expected to mature into wide acceptance towards the end of the upcoming decade. With shorter product lifecycles and shifting demand patterns, 3D printing in supply chain will definitely reduce total cost of operations and loss of sales. McKinsey expects the entire 3D printing market will balloon up to $550 billion by 2025. (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/3-d-printing-takes-shape)
Benefits of 3D Printing in Supply Chain
From Ford’s assembly line style of supply chain in 1913 to the lean Toyota Production System in 1975, supply chain management has moved from being just consistent to agile and consistent. This agility refers to flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness to changing customer needs and products. The frequency of sales and operations planning cycles has been reduced to weeks versus quarterly used previously.
Nowadays, the “voice of the customer” changes rapidly due to shifting preferences and aspirations to own newer products. Bespoke items are the need of the hour with difficult to predict demand patterns. Hence, the supply chain which is able to cater to such preference swings will survive and thrive. For example, digital devices like smartphones, wearables, tablets, laptops are constantly upgraded with new releases forcing the ancillaries to keep pace with a growing need for accessories like covers, holders, adapters, docks, etc. The concept of 3D printing will revolutionize such support industries tremendously.
3D printing in the supply chain will also promote more next shoring than outsourcing. Production of components can be located very close to the end customers to cut down on turnaround time, the bullwhip effect, and offer higher service levels. This will also create a lean inventory and free up cash for other commercial purposes of the enterprise.
This technology will also help in resource consolidation and skill development. It can be expected in the future that a driver of a mobile 3D printer van should be able to print spare widgets on the go and as demanded by the customers. This shall strengthen the logistics and after sales support.
Such manufacturing techniques also leave a lighter carbon footprint as compared to conventional manufacturing making it a green technology which is gaining in importance both in terms of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility. With the advent of this technology, deployment of 3D printing raw materials will become the new sourcing and procurement supply chain challenge on the upstream side. This will create new market dynamics and will allow first movers’ advantage to the companies offering such materials.
Hurdles to overcome before 3D printing flourishes in supply chain space
As demonstrated by analyst reported hype cycles, enterprises are losing interest for implementing 3D printing initiatives in supply chain. With severe stress on supply chains to reduce the total cost of ownership, there has been a push for multiple sources and/or commoditization of products. Here 3D printing does not tick the box since the intellectual property rights reside with the 3D modeler or in the file which cannot be socialized without consent. This makes it a supplier’s market where fair prices are not established.
Moreover, the tectonic shift from conventional manufacturing to 3D printing needs a long term vision and mission since it is a make or break decision for most enterprises. Releasing a skilled workforce while investing in 3D printers is a “big bet” that is easier said than done. Absorption of quality non-conformity costs due to changeover to a relatively new and untested manufacturing method is also a deterrent.
Not all industries can directly seek the benefits of 3D printing and will still need to rely on traditional manufacturing techniques. These include heavy engineering, infrastructure development, and customized yet commoditized industries. Precision tools, jigs, and fixtures are still not available for all products to be 3D printed. Further, not all components are 3D printing enabled as well.
Call to action
Even though 3D printing is in a nascent stage and its percolation in the supply chain space is some years away; large size enterprises with over a $billion USD in annual revenues must examine their readiness to adopt this technology. This technology is not going to radically change the market quickly; rather, it will gradually become seamlessly incorporated into the manufacturing strategy and day-to-day operations. Companies must evaluate their existing product portfolio to assess the opportunities and capabilities that 3D printing can have on their market strategy. There must be a well-defined near term and long term adoption and implementation roadmap that slowly, piece-by-piece, products can be transitions to a 3D printing strategy. There are a growing number of 3D print contract manufacturers emerging that can reduce the risk and cost to provide pilot capabilities. In parallel, the resource pool must begin to be trained to build necessary skillsets to leverage the opportunity to adopt 3D printing. Enterprises aiming to be ahead in the game must learn, absorb, train on, and execute this transformative technology.