3D printing and how it will affect the supply chain industry

It looks like a scene taken from Star Trek. There is a device in this film that shows how things could be in the future. As a matter a fact, the movie was a total success at predicting many things that would happen in the future. This device was the “replicator”.  The common scene in the movie was that people made food in the replicator and it was ready in an instant. The modern day “replicators” are the 3D printers that are now available to anyone anywhere that has enough money to purchase one. And they are not that expensive to get. Even if it seems fictional, and to David Kiger and to a lot of people out there it does, it is a reality that is growing at fast rates. There is even a 3D printer to print house parts as big as windows and doors and there are projects to create entire 3D printing constructions sites to demonstrate that it is possible and that it is the revolution of the construction industry.  

3D printing was originally conceived as a way to more easily and quickly produce prototypes. In the normal printing process, ink is sprayed onto paper to produce a printout. While with 3D printers, which have the same principle but different materials, operate in a similar way. They spray small amount of basic materials such as plastics, ceramics, or metal one layer at a time, over and over again to eventually produce the end product.  A design that will help the printer trace the product is needed (this is called a computer aided design, or CAD file). This technology will make a big statement in the manufacturing industry, and thus the supply chain industry.

Maybe we won’t be printing sandwiches (who knows anyway), but we will be printing small things and spare parts for our cars and motorcycle in the near future. The industry will be affected and they will feel the consequences.  Let’s take a look how this amazing revolution in technology will affect the traditional supply chain approaches.

3D Printer_supply chain management_industry_david kiger
Image courtesy of MKzero at Flickr.com

The first thing to mention is that there will be more local Manufacturing. This means that more things will be made closer to their final destination. Imagine small items made on the same location within days or hours and being delivered meeting schedules and customer expectations. This will have definite impact on the logistics industry, and will change the way business try and schedule their operations. Also, deliveries and long hauls will start to be obsolete for small products.

In the industry of the new replacement parts model things will get very difficult for a  small part to be produced locally and even domestically. Also, in the big picture, businesses around the world will be able to provide replacement parts as required and with exact specifications and modifications instead of trying to predict the need and manufacture large amounts of products and store them in order to cover the needs of mass consumption.

Nowadays customized products are very trendy and are in high demand. Cars, shoes, houses etc are things that people want to have and show in their own personal way. Having a customized shoe used to be very expensive and only done by companies with the necessary structure to do so. Some of those things are very easy to personalize. In whichever way, customizability will be easier, faster, and more efficient for companies to provide made-to-order products to their end users, so customized products won’t have to travel all the way through the supply chain.

3D printers and design will now have a very strong relationship with engineering, marketing and manufacturing. In a general way, and as all the previous examples show it, companies will have the potential to shift some manufacturing away from low-wage countries and closer to the customer base, so companies can more quickly respond to consumer demand.

On the other hand, factories will be affected too. Manufacturing will inevitably change and workers would need a higher level of skills to make more sophisticated goods. Factory jobs will start to be reduced because the focus will be on design and engineering, logistics and IT.

Companies will also see their culture and offices change in order to adapt to the new 3D printing trend. A closer integration of the various departments of an organization will be mandatory to meet customer demands.

Nowadays 3D printers are not very common within all the companies, but it won’t take long for this trend to take over the world and to be in all the companies. Some prototype printers and some test printers can be seen in homes and industries and they are the future of small item production.

Get more information on supply chain stories in this article

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