3D Printing and The Supply Chains of The Future

It’s not often that supply chain issues capture the wider public’s imagination. However, there is one innovation in recent years, 3D printing, which appears to make Star Trek science a stunning reality and has broken into the public’s consciousness. By Mark Patterson | Supplychain247.com

There is little doubt that 3D printing is a potentially transformational technology. It would normally be bold to compare an innovation to the invention of electricity or the internet, but I believe that this turns the traditional approach to design and manufacturing on its head.

In some ways 3D printing is the opposite of traditional manufacturing – it creates objects by adding, rather than subtracting, material and allows us to seemingly create objects such as shoes and toys out of thin air.

However, what’s really fascinating is its transformative potential. Supply chains have typically been all about warehousing and shifting products outwards from the point of manufacture.

Now 3D printing allows us to shave weeks off of manufacturing times and reduce the carbon footprint associated with production and distribution. What’s more, it produces little waste, so helps with both environmental concerns and the costs associated with disposal.

3D printing shouldn’t be thought of purely for manufacturing, since it could have much broader supply chain implications. Indeed it can currently only be used for printing small numbers of simple objects made of one or two materials. Its most exciting uses seem to me to be twofold.

The first is in the customization of objects. A classic example is iPhone cases. People love customizing their phones, and a custom-made case can be printed in about an hour. This is much better for consumers than choosing between a limited range of objects, which then need to be shipped from China over the course of six weeks. It’s a huge step forward.

The other major impact the technology has affects Service Parts Logistics. With 3D printers at their disposal, service parts engineers could download designs for spare parts and print them from the back of a vehicle within a very short timeframe. Similarly, the supply of the raw materials that are used to print items would become a major new aspect of the logistics industry.

This potential doesn’t mean that the 3D printing revolution is without its obstacles. There are implications for the digital supply chain to go along with the physical one, since the intellectual property resides in the file from which the object is printed rather than the product itself.

This means that in future, we’ll need to really examine this data chain to ensure that the information it contains is securely transported and managed. This is a great growth opportunity for our industry. As supply chain professionals we need to develop our data exchange offering, so that we can continue to offer our customers a one stop shop for supply chain solutions, be they physical or digital.

The other major obstacle comes in the form of understanding. Despite first appearing in the 1980s, 3D printing is still a fledgling technology and universities and engineers are still working hard to develop it. In order to secure the technology’s future, we’ll need to help to develop their understanding and help to create an environment where the technology can really flourish and fulfill its immense potential.

Research should focus not only on its manufacturing implications, but also on how 3D printing will impact upon broader supply chain processes.

If 3D printing gets the support that it needs, we have every reason to believe that it can be a really significant development in the history of supply chains. It could really improve what we do at a fundamental level. I don’t know about you, but I find that really exciting.