3D Printing Offers New Sustainable Supply Chain Paradigm

3D printing establishes a new era for sustainable manufacturing.

Hp Jet Fusion 5200 Under Lid
HP Inc.

These days, there are several companies that put sustainability in the driver’s seat. If they intend to realize a net zero carbon, fully regenerative economy while reducing overall environmental footprint, sustainability must underscore everything.

Any company aiming to remain competitive and viable beyond this decade is redefining its business priorities around accelerated, expansive change that is also better for the planet. More and more leaders are asking themselves whether the world can be transformed by rethinking their approach to design and manufacturing. However, true resiliency requires looking beyond a company’s own operations to its entire ecosystem.

When HP surveyed global digital manufacturing and 3D printing decision makers in late 2020, an overwhelming majority (89%) said they were changing their business models, and at least nine out of 10 were investigating new and more sustainable supply chain models. One reason is because supply chains are a conduit to widespread sustainable innovation, but only where there’s a willingness to redefine manufacturing paradigms.  

With 3D printing, small and large companies alike are developing, iterating and manufacturing goods efficiently and sustainably. Those qualities will increasingly define who has the upper hand in the market. Here’s how.

Promoting more resilient production

Manufacturers were blindsided last year when life was forever altered with the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Immediately, they sought greater supply diversification with an emphasis on localized, on-demand production. Look no further than the countless digital manufacturing sites that morphed into hubs for personal protective equipment (PPE) production last spring. Often, it was 3D printing that allowed disrupted supply chains to be simplified and strengthened at the same time.

More than a year later, we have to stop thinking of those shifts as fortunate stopgaps and instead focus on what they offer long-term. Expedited iteration, faster speed to market, less resource-intensive production, a smaller transportation footprint and the extension of product life with replacement parts on demand—these characteristics will not only define the future of manufacturing, but will also pave the way for a more sustainable world for generations to come. 

3D printing enables both short- and long-term solutions capable of near-instant responses to market changes. This is an unparalleled competitive advantage for companies, but customers and the world around us see benefits as well.

Meeting consumer demand for sustainability and personalization

As demand for sustainable products has multiplied, so has the pressure on businesses to break from the one-size-fits-all mold. According to Deloitte, more than one-third of consumers have expressed interest in purchasing personalized products. Among them, 20% are willing to pay a 20% premium for those goods.

Fortunately, conscientious and customizable goods can be one in the same. But first, current supply chain models that were not built for shorter runs or minimized inventory and warehousing needs must evolve.

This is where companies have to embrace transformation in how they work and in how they think. The supply chain solutions that worked when every Model T coming off the assembly line for nearly a decade was the same color won’t work in a world where 3D printing has made the customization of car parts not only possible but also accessible. Car manufacturers have taken strides to put digital manufacturing to work in cutting-edge ways. They’ve simultaneously enabled less material waste and energy consumption while realizing more design options, all of which are critical to a more sustainable future.

Ensuring lasting change and innovation

Of course, it is not just the realities of a vulnerable global economy or changing consumer demands driving the need for a new way forward. The planet is in legitimate crisis. Businesses need assurance that they have the processes and technology in place to proactively and sustainably transform.

According to recent research, 86% of people want to see a more equitable and sustainable world after the pandemic, and nine out of 10 want this change to be significant as part of what the report deems a “Great Reset.” 3D printing and its intrinsically flexible nature empowers a more circular economy. And, it could not be advancing at a better moment in time. Take, for instance, the ease of extending product lifecycles with on-demand replacement part libraries that 3D printing supports, or the inventive use of more environmentally friendly and recycled materials that new molded fiber technology offers in place of single-use plastics.

More breakthrough applications are emerging every day in industries like automotive. Excess 3D printed powders and parts are becoming functional and durable injection molded vehicle parts, contributing to the circular economy. Meanwhile, 3D printing technology is also being used for part repairs, giving new life to older car models. These capabilities aren’t simply galvanizing industries. They are changing the world – for the better.  

People are ready to create big wins after a profoundly challenging time. We are on the cusp of an innovation boom, and companies require tools that will allow complex paradigm shifts to take shape. While many leaders are driven by the economic growth 3D printing enables, the efficiencies and long-term resiliency it establishes have created a new era for sustainable manufacturing, which is second to none in today’s climate.