Beyond the Hype: 3D Printing’s Impact on the Supply Chain

The conversation must shift from 3D printing’s technical benefits to business value, thus highlighting its supply chain impact.

3D printing’s layer-by-layer build process means companies can eliminate subassemblies and consolidate multiple components into one part.
3D printing’s layer-by-layer build process means companies can eliminate subassemblies and consolidate multiple components into one part.

3D printing has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the last several years that its potential has been more broadly realized. During that awakening, there were many claims stating the technology would disrupt the supply chain. Although there’s no denying 3D printing is impacting the supply chain, the traditional supply chain remains relatively unchanged.

Before 3D printing can impact operations on a broader scale, there are challenges that must be addressed, such as equipment and material costs. And the conversation must shift from 3D printing’s technical benefits to its business value, thus highlighting its impact on the supply chain. As this becomes common knowledge, more and more companies can realize how 3D printing can give their operations an edge. Beyond the benefits at the macro-level, companies that incorporate 3D printing into their manufacturing processes are seeing tangible benefits across several areas.

Inventory

Massive warehouses stocked with yet-to-be-used parts are expensive and cumbersome. 3D printing can help limit those costs and inconveniences because it allows parts to be built on demand as needed, lowering inventory costs and freeing up storage space for other uses. Think of it as a digital warehouse where all your parts are housed in a space the size of a flash drive or on the cloud. Additionally, global 3D printing companies have the infrastructure and capacity to meet the needs (e.g., high-volume production, quick turnaround times) of today’s manufacturers.

Production

With 3D printing, there’s no need to ship parts across the world. All parts can be sent securely as digital design files to more convenient production locations. If a replacement part must be made and delivered on short notice, companies can send files to the nearest qualified production facility or 3D printing service provider (i.e., those with the necessary equipment and expertise). Breaking down barriers to production means companies can achieve reduced costs on logistics and boost supply chain flexibility, all while lowering their carbon footprints.

Customization

One of 3D printing’s chief advantages is its ability to easily build complex and customizable parts. This benefit also impacts the supply chain because mass customization is a brand-new business model enabled by 3D printing, one in which outputs are driven by end customers. That helps achieve lower inventory costs because customers dictate what’s needed and when, transforming the supply chain into an essentially stockless process.

Less Material = Lower Costs

Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing’s costs are not tied to a part’s design complexity. That allows engineers to build complex parts that require less material consumption, translating into lighter parts and reduced material costs—without sacrificing the durability or strength of parts.

No Tooling Necessary

As you know by now, 3D printing can replace some forms of traditional tooling, thus reducing the costs of tool production and maintaining tooling inventory. Lead time to build and ship tools is also eliminated, and time to market can be reduced from six months to six weeks.

Easier Repairs, Alleviating Risk

Companies no longer have to ship tools back and forth to fix design flaws. Now all engineers have to do is update a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) file and send it to the manufacturer, allowing businesses to quickly reprint and validate designs before moving into tooling.

Reduction and Simplification

3D printing’s layer-by-layer build process means companies can eliminate subassemblies and consolidate multiple components into one part. It can also reduce the labor involved during assembly and decrease lead times.

It’s also critical for companies to understand 3D printing is a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional manufacturing. The businesses that understand this and incorporate the two into a harmonious production process can substantially enhance their supply chains. Understanding the technology’s value beyond its technical benefits and how it impacts multiple aspects of businesses—like productivity, product optimization, environmental impact, supply chain, research and development, and overall manufacturing return on investment—is another important step in reaping 3D printing’s operational rewards.

While using 3D printing to manufacture products may just be emerging as a competitive advantage, companies that don’t initiate investment soon can quickly be at a disadvantage.

Kent Firestone, the COO at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, has over 25 years of experience in the additive manufacturing industry and laser sintering applications development. For more information on the company, please visit www.stratasysdirect.com.

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