3D Printing

3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), has emerged as one of the most disruptive innovations to impact the logistics industry and the global supply chain. This latest technology projects to have a far-reaching impact on global supply chains and operations.

Far from being the technology of the future, some claim that technology can help supply chain companies significantly reduce costs, overcome geopolitical risks/tariffs, improve customer service, reduce their carbon footprint and drive innovation for competitive advantage. Whether revolutionary or evolutionary, 3D printing technology as a trend that will significantly enhance the production and supply chain process sooner than later. According to a study, the global 3D-printing market expects to reach $41,587.1Bn by 2027.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is a process which uses a three-dimensional digital model to create a physical object by adding many thin layers of material in succession from a digital file without the need for a mould or cutting tool. The basic requirements to create a 3D object are a digital model, feed material and a 3D printer. A wide range of materials used include plastics, glass, metal, polymers, wax, sand and glue mixes, nylon, ceramic, edible material, and even human tissue, to prepare 3D printing models.

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How is 3D printing helping to build a resilient supply chain?

Supply chain issues sometimes create major problems for manufacturers, as suboptimal supply chain logistics cause an increase in lead time that impacts the businesses to meet critical deadlines.

For example: If a critical part needs to replace urgently in the factory, manufacturing operations go for a stall as it takes time to build, ship, transport, and receive, which often involves a few days or even months. Also, the manufacturers who rely on external suppliers for some critical parts remain at the discretion of the supply chain, as there is substantial time and effort required between when a company first identifies the need and when the final part arrives. Moreover, if the received parts contain certain defects or quality issues, the arduous cycle repeats, causing further delays and extended downtime. Sometimes, serious delays also arise due to shipping or handling complications, or a material submitting purchase orders, managing the bidding process with multiple vendors and delivering to the specific sites.

3D printing platforms can allow manufacturers to circumvent these hurdles and uncertainties. With a cloud-enabled distributed manufacturing model, 3D printing platforms enable manufacturers to print the right parts at precise locations anytime and anywhere as required.  

With the individual printers placed across different geographic locations and the parts stored in cloud-based digital inventory 3D printing software, it can print at any 3D printer within the network. Thus, a CAD file can make it possible for manufacturers to go from art to part entirely in-house — eliminating dependence on third parties and the associated risks, such as shipping issues, logistical complications, and issues with upstream suppliers that cause rippling effects.

So it is evident if applied on a mass scale, it will have a vast impact on manufacturing that now cannot think beyond tooling, assembly lines or supply chains.

However, various factors like the durability, speed and protection of intellectual property rights have prevented 3D printing from entering mainstream manufacturing. But with the advancement in the industry, it’s only a matter of time before we see it significantly impacting the global supply chains.

Let us explore what this emerging 3D printing technology holds for the supply chain industry.

With the widespread use of 3D printing technology, the logistics sector will affect and have a massive impact on the supply chain and drive competitive advantage with shorter turnaround time and change in transport demand.

Decentralization of production- Decentralized production is a buzzword nowadays.

The portable nature of the 3D printing technology will enable businesses to take production closer to the customer to obtain an edge in time to market and speed of delivery, making it an increasingly viable strategy for many high end manufacturers.

As a result, chances are that manufacturing will see a shift away from mass production in low-cost countries and more local assembly hubs. With this technology in place, companies are able to produce components at the location rather than relying on imports. Also, help lower shipping costs and more responsiveness to customers giving companies an edge in operations.

Drive product customization– As a toolless process, 3D printing technology gives manufacturers the flexibility to the tailor- make their offering to their customers, thus helping to enhance customer experience.

The technology will also result in more agile supply chains with greater client involvement in the entire design, production process, and distribution into one supply chain function.

Reduce complexity and improve time-to-market– 3D printing technology will impact the global supply chains by decreasing complexities, saving on production costs, enhancing lead times, improving time-to-market and consolidating the number of components and processes required for manufacturing locally.

Improve resource efficiency – 3D printing technology facilitates almost zero waste, lowers the risk of overproduction, excess inventory storage, reduces wastage of material and the carbon footprint. Thus, promote a ‘greener,’ more energy-efficient, cost-effective and ‘Just-in-Time’ manufacturing.

Rationalize Inventory and logistics–With the increase in ‘on-demand’ production norms, the need to transport physical goods across countries and continents will reduce slowly. This will eventually have a major impact on warehousing with the lower number of SKUs required for production, and thus logistics will have the potential to reduce tariffs.

Though the industry adoption of 3D printing is still in a very nascent stage but has the potential to completely shift the way the supply chain and manufacturing industry operates today.

The 3D printing technology can revolutionize the manufacturing and the supply chain industry to reduce production time, lower inventory storage costs, fewer obsolete products, fewer suppliers through consolidating purchases, cheaper transport with local supply and increased responsiveness. It all depends on how the industry perceives bridging the “knowledge gap” between the technology available and the adoption by the industry.

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