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3D printing in the supply chain


3D printing is another new and exciting technology that has tremendous potential for customized manufacturing and, by extension, supply chain management. Despite the name however, 3D printing has nothing to do with your office-jet printer.

In a comprehensive 2011 white paper from the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, 3D printing is described as an “additive manufacturing” (AM) technology. For example, think of a printer- style machine which allows you to upload a CAD (computer-aided-design) schematic of a machine part. The printer then sprays (i.e. “adds”) successive layers of material onto a tray, or other surface, until it builds the finished product, right in front of your eyes! Unlikely? Not at all. Printers, 3D CAD software and various AM raw materials are already commercially available. You Tube videos abound with examples of 3D printers being used to produce prototypes, samples and finished parts of an incredible variety of items, from toys to building materials to experimental human tissue.

At this stage, 3D printing is more an example of small-scale focused manufacturing than mass production, but the potential impact of this technology on the supply chain is significant. Consider how many industries ship sample products, MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) items, and critical parts to customers who have eliminated inventory to reduce inventory carrying costs. Each of these scenarios involves the traditional cost/service tradeoff of expedited transportation: “How fast can we get it, and at what cost?” Or worse, “What additional costs (or risks) are we incurring every hour we don’t have it?” Sounds simple, but anyone involved in sourcing critical products will tell you it can be a nightmare. The process of finding available supplier inventory, processing the order and arranging expedited transportation can be daunting. And that doesn’t include any of the other business-related functions that can derail the process, such as credit availability, documentation issues and export/import Customs formalities.

Now, drop a 3D printer into the mix and you get an idea of the potential. Expensive inventories of critical parts are replaced by less expensive inventories of additive raw materials. CAD designs are e-mailed to the customer who then prints the item on the spot, eliminating the need for expedited transportation. Cheaper, faster, more responsive. In other words, 3D printing may be seen as a tool for aligning supply chain strategy with the organization’s competitive strategy.

Still not convinced? Amazon, a company recognized as a best-in-class example when it comes to supply chain strategy, has launched a 3D printing store on its website, offering customers the opportunity to “print” a number of customized products, ranging from toys to jewelry. Amazon’s use of 3D printing combines the concepts of focused manufacturing and inventory postponement strategies, impacting everything in the supply chain from supplier relationships to customer service.

3D printing is novel, unique and innovative, much like RFID (radio frequency identification). And, like RFID, there are set up costs involved. But the ROI (return on investment) on 3D printing may be much faster than RFID. In fact, 3dprinter.net cites research from MIT that seemingly makes 3D printing “technically feasible at the individual or household level”. Granted, you probably won’t find a 3D printer at your local copy-store anytime soon, and 3D printing won’t eliminate the need for transportation. But as 3D printing becomes more accessible, it will have an impact, in some sectors, on logistics patterns, shifting finished goods transportation towards bulk material transportation, lowering customer costs and improving customer response.


Laurie Turnbull

Laurie Turnbull

Laurie Turnbull is a supply chain consultant with Cole International Inc., a leading international logistics company providing customs brokerage, warehousing and global freight forwarding services.
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