Recent years have brought the importance of effective supply chain management into stark clarity. The COVID-19 pandemic was perhaps the biggest single creator of supply chain problems seen in many years. But even as the health crisis slowed down, global inflation, interest rate hikes, geopolitical conflict, cybersecurity risks, material shortages and other major issues continued to cause bottlenecks into 2023.
At times, supply chain difficulties feel like a constant rather than a variable due to their pervasiveness, and the factors driving them are unlikely to slow down soon. But manufacturers are in a unique position to bring notable improvements to their supply chains. This stems from the ongoing advancements in additive manufacturing (AM) technologies.
AM can be a positive influence on manufacturing supply chains if implemented strategically — with leading-edge 3D printing systems and expert support. In this blog, we'll explore the supply chain pain points that AM addresses and the benefits it can help facilitate.
Optimize Efficiency Through Part Consolidation
Industrial polymer 3D printing technology can create nearly identical parts — in function and performance — to traditionally manufactured parts. But it often uses far fewer components to do so: one or two instead of 20 or 30. This ultimately helps lower the associated costs and efforts for sourcing suppliers and maintaining supply chains, without sacrificing production quantity or quality. By consolidating components early on, you avoid the need to do so later when redesign — or, where applicable, recertification to meet safety requirements — would be much more complicated and cumbersome.
Eliminating Costly Tooling and Molding
Industrial 3D printing completely removes tooling and molding from the manufacturing equation. This cuts out two major cost drivers: In subtractive manufacturing, it's not merely that tools and molds have to be designed, produced and obtained (potentially from multiple suppliers) before you can create parts: Tools must also be fitted to computer numerical control (CNC) and injection molding machines, then tested on the factory floor. If successful, the molds must be stored, which increases overhead. Also, all of this takes months, even if the supply chain is running smoothly.
Industrial 3D printing requires none of this. Though its technologies and materials require a significant initial investment, avoiding the ongoing expenses related to tooling and molding alone facilitates enough in savings to counterbalance a notable portion of that upfront expense:
When Deutsche Bahn swapped injection molding for polymer 3D printing to produce new fluorescent fixtures for onboard information display, it lowered its manufacturing costs by 80%. It also reduced production time by 75%, as the project took just one month from start to first part delivery.
Finally, eliminating tooling and molding also reduces the complexity of your supply chain because you ultimately deal with fewer suppliers.
Improving Inventory and Spare Part Management
The part and material inventories of traditional manufacturers are often massive, and the inventory carrying cost of storing them reflects this. This is not true of additive manufacturing. Essential components for an AM build can be quickly produced on demand in accordance with business needs. Voluminous libraries of spare parts aren't a default necessity as they are with traditional manufacturing because part specifications are saved digitally as computer-aided design (CAD) files.
Instead of having many spare parts in storage where they naturally degrade over time — even under optimal environmental conditions — you can produce spares on demand as needed. Industrial 3D printing also simplifies supply chain and logistics requirements when spare parts are required for specialized applications. Train and bus manufacturers, which often keep vehicle fleets in service for many years, don't have to gamble on far-flung (and high-priced) suppliers being the only source of discontinued parts when they utilize additive manufacturing. AM adoption is growing in the industry: As just one example, Deutsche Bahn recently produced its 100,000th 3D-printed spare part (specifically, a critical gearbox housing for shunting locomotives).
3D printing technologies like selective laser sintering (SLS) can produce train and bus replacement parts that match and sometimes even exceed the capabilities of the original, helping prolong product life. On a broader scale, with the help of industrial 3D printing consultants, organizations can identify traditionally produced parts that are ideal candidates for AM replacements.
Streamlining and Simplifying Logistics Through Decentralized Production
With traditional manufacturing, production is typically centralized, occurring at a few select company facilities (or, not infrequently, just one). If any one facility experiences mechanical failure, technical difficulties, power outages or other circumstances that interrupt production, it's a massive bottleneck no matter what. Outsourcing part production doesn't diminish the problem, as the onus of supply chain oversight is still on the manufacturer.
Additive manufacturing technologies enable decentralized production. You can have several industrial 3D printing systems spread out across a larger number of smaller facilities. This ensures that production — and logistics — won't be majorly delayed by downtime at one or even two locations. Also, whatever the upfront costs of equipment and facility setup may be, in many cases, the long-term cost-efficiency benefits to your production capabilities, supply chain management and order fulfillment will be worth it.
Enabling Responsible Manufacturing
Virtually all the benefits described thus far contribute, in various forms, to sustainability. Given the urgency of the global climate emergency, one can reasonably argue that this is ultimately the most important advantage industrial 3D printing has to offer. Polymer AM enables sustainable spare part production and helps lower manufacturers' overall carbon footprint.
By avoiding the unnecessary creation of excess spare parts, industrial polymer 3D printing also helps streamline the supply chain, cutting down on production expenses and accelerating time to market.