The growth of additive manufacturing (i.e., producing products using 3D printers) has been stunning. Not long ago, 3D printers were a novelty that printed small plastic figurines. Today, 3D printers are producing everything from chocolate confections to full-size houses. Despite all the progress, additive manufacturing is still in its infancy. A recent article noted, “3D printing is a rapidly advancing field, that is sometimes referred to as the ‘new cornerstone of the manufacturing industry’.” Matthew Timms adds, “Cited by some as ‘the next industrial revolution’, 3D printing is slowly reshaping the traditional supply chain, and could conceivably be the single most disruptive breakthrough since progressive assembly.” Those are heady claims and, at the moment, may seem more like hyperbole than reality since additive manufacturing represents only a small percentage of the manufacturing sector.
Additive manufacturing still faces some big challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is speed. Traditionally, 3D printers have been slow — really slow. Speed, however, is not the only challenge. Samir Shah, CEO and co-founder of 4 AXYZ Inc., writes, “Effectively, we need to separate delightful, hobby-level, in-home making from economy-empowering manufacturing.” He asserts, “Three things are desperately needed from today’s 3D technology.” They are:
- Rapid progress toward superior quality finishing.
- Width and depth of product range (a greater variety of materials prepared for automated processes).
- Industrial-scale customization to achieve required volumes and speed of production.
With as much research and development as is taking place in the area of additive manufacturing, I’m confident that challenges highlighted by Shah will be overcome. The question then becomes, “How will additive manufacturing affect the supply chain?” Professor Terry Harrison (@tph55), of the Supply Chain and Information Systems Department at Pennsylvania State University, told Timms, “The fundamental economics of manufacturing changes with additive manufacturing,” The primary change foreseen by Harrison is the return of local manufacturing. Timms explains:
“Additive manufacturing has only recently come into mainstream use, and companies are beginning to question how the technology could factor into their processes and improve backward integration. Provided the technology addresses a number of areas still in need of improvement, where once the onset of globalisation gave rise to globe-spanning supply chains, additive manufacturing could spark a return to highly localised manufacturing environments.”
It’s no secret that transporting goods around the globe adds to both the complexity of the supply chain and the cost of goods. Producing goods locally in a factory filled with 3D printers could significantly reduce both supply chain costs and complexity. Timms elaborates:
“The traditional supply chain, though it has been much improved over the years, still carries with it a number of glaring inefficiencies, namely: long lead times, high transport costs, complex distribution networks and a dependency on economies of scale. However, a 3D printing alternative represents quite the opposite, in that goods can be locally printed and distributed, with low transport costs to match, leading some commentators to speculate overly enthusiastically about the changing dynamics of traditional supply chains.”
Timms goes on to note, “Additive manufacturing, according to a Goldman Sachs report entitled The Search for Creative Destruction, is one of eight major technologies that will drive companies and business models in the future to either adapt or die.” Before your business is in jeopardy, there is still plenty of time to do some “what if” scenario planning to figure out how best additive manufacturing might fit into your business strategy. Remember, there are still a lot of challenges that need to be overcome before additive manufacturing makes a significant dent in the manufacturing sector; nevertheless, “what if” thinking could prove both useful and interesting.
Perhaps the most common business use of 3D printers at the moment is prototyping. Adrienne Selko (@ASelkoIW) notes that 3D printing “offers companies the ability to print out new product prototypes [and] attract new customers who can help keep a company competitive. It also can address operational issues by improving lead time, quality and safety when parts are printed onsite to address specific production problems.” Mark McDonald, design manager at EVCO, told Selko, “We use 3-D printing to demonstrate the finished product, and are now part of the discussion as to how design can affect the eventual manufacturing of the part. This technology takes design and manufacturing to a whole new level that is only limited by the imagination.” 3D printers can also be used in conjunction with high definition laser scanners to reproduce models of real world objects. Lindsay Hock explains, “3-D scanners analyze real-world objects or environments to collect data on their shape and appearance. The collected data can then be used to construct digital 3-D models that can aid in product development.” Television lovers might remember watching an episode of CBS’ “NCIS: Los Angeles” in which laser scanners and 3D printers were used to recreate an overseas crime scene that could then be examined in detail back in the United States. That kind of creative use of scanning and printing technologies could impact a lot of businesses.
As noted above, one of the economic impacts that additive manufacturing could have is reinvigorating local manufacturing and decreasing logistics costs. Amazon dreams of going even further by installing 3D printers on its delivery trucks. Mike Hockett (@mikehockett) reports, “Amazon’s drone delivery program may be grounded, but who needs a drone to drop off an item when you could have it produced curbside of your home? That’s what the e-tailer’s latest ambition entails, as … Amazon filed several patent applications for an on-demand 3D printing service in mobile manufacturing hubs, including delivery trucks.” Hockett continues:
“The 3D printers would allow drivers to pop out products from right outside customers’ homes in the same trucks already used to deliver other products. Such an implementation could affect the industrial distribution directly in the appliance repair services industry. The technology would still need some refining, but hypothetically, a technician could pull up to a house, identify a faulty part, print it or the materials needed for the part, and have it ready for installation shortly after. The bigger application is that mobile 3D printing would allow repair services to cut down on stocking parts, or waiting for parts to ship from a warehouse, or risking delays. That’s the goal for Amazon.”
Clearly, the folks at Amazon have done some “what if” thinking about how additive manufacturing could affect their business model. If you haven’t invested your time in thinking about how it could affect your future, now would be a good time to start.
 University of Twente, “3D printing with metals achieved,” R&D Magazine, 10 June 2015.
 Matthew Timms, “3D printing cannot completely replace traditional manufacturing, say experts,” World Finance, 16 July 2014.
 Samir Shah, “3D Manufacturing: New Weapon For US Economy,” InformationWeek, 1 August 2014.
 Adrienne Selko, “3-D Technology Shrinks the Supply Chain,” Material, Handling & Logistics (MH&L), 20 May 2015.
 Lindsay Hock, “Scanning Products into 3-D,” R&D Magazine, 6 August 2014.
 Mike Hockett, “Amazon Wants To Put 3D Printers In Delivery Trucks,” Manufacturing.net, 2 March 2015.