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Aug 22

Additive Manufacturing: Disrupting the Supply Chain

Though the potential of additive manufacturing to revolutionize the way products are made is a topic often discussed, the potential additive manufacturing has to disrupt the traditional supply chain is another means by which 3D Printing is disrupting traditional manufacturing processes. For numerous industries, the incorporation of 3D Printing into production can facilitate the minimization of logistics costs for both small and large manufacturers, whilst also bolstering manufacturing processes themselves. The myriad changes additive manufacturing is set to bring about to the supply chain can be summarized using the same words often used to describe the technique itself and what it means for manufacturers and users: words like accessible, customized, consolidated, and optimized. In today's post, we'll be covering a recent post by Stratasys on the future of additive manufacturing and supply chain optimizaiton.

In certain industries, these changes are already in full swing -  for example take a look at how Stratasys technologies, like the the Fortus 900mc and Aircraft Interiors Package, are disrupting the way things are being done in the Aerospace Industry. In fact, many Cimetrix customers have not only been able design and prototype products faster- they have also optimized the way these parts are ultimately produced, sometimes completely replacing injection molded components with 3D Printed counterparts. As additive manufacturing techologies continue to improve, these benefits will begin to be realized on a much larger scale.

Part Consolidation

Many researchers who follow the additive manufacturing industry, for example, say one benefit of the technology lies in the need for fewer components within a single product. The part consolidation will lead to a reduction in SKUs and inventory and could potentially reduce a company’s base of suppliers. Product simplification will also reduce logistics labor, required tooling, machining centers, and work-in-process inventory.

Aircraft production often relies indirectly on 3D printing for larger volumes of units. Because 3D printing is faster and better equipped to build complex parts – which in turn makes it more cost-effective – it is often used as a master pattern in urethane casting for large interior components on aircraft. The 3D printed pattern is first used to consolidate multiple components into one fluid build, such as a three-part panel involving frame, wall and attachment, into a single unit. Then the 3D printed pattern creates a soft silicone tool for urethane casting. Typical consolidations include adding mounts and brackets into printed geometries, or simply combining parts for production as one piece.

Inventory Optimization

In addition, those small, distributed additive manufacturing centers will have less need for just in time inventory and for other paths to inventory reduction. They’ll simply be able to print up more products—or parts—when needed. That alone will be a huge change from today’s supply chain, a big part of which is powered by just-in-time processes. Supply chains will also become more local, as 3D printing holds the potential to distribute manufactuing from a central location to localized centres, which could tailor individual products to a set of customers needs that vary geographically. If buyers in a certain area seek specific products – or there is a surge in demand—manufacturers can produce them near the customers who want them, and redistribute printers to keep up with the demand. Because companies would be able to produce the parts when needed, this minimizes the potential impact of production shortages, demand spikes, or over-production.

Late stage postponement makes the supply chain more agile as it can react to moment-by-moment changes in the marketplace. In the same way, additive manufacturing can also step up during production disruptions or stoppages, in addition to improving thes processes during normal operation. Should a natural disaster keep supplies from making it to a particular factory, for example, digital inventories and additive manufacturing would be able to bridge the gap with on the spot manufactuing. The parts could be configured quickly, require no tooling, and be produced in small batches on demand, without waste.

Localized Manufacturing

With the rise of additive manufacturing, it won’t be too long before consumers will take a page from today’s food and restaurant culture: the move toward local. With consumers more ecologically aware than ever, they’ll naturally want to know how far their products have traveled to reach them. The answer will be: not far. Manufacturers will be able to work with their supply chain partners to create a network of 3D printers, each of which will act, in essence, as a small micro factory with operations coordinated via technology. That type of approach knocks out the distances products travel within the supply chain. In the future manufacturers will find it’s no longer financially feasible or efficient to send products across the globe to get to customers when manufacturing can take place almost anywhere at the same cost.

Not only does additive manufacturing have the potential to change today’s supply chain, it may also lead to the creation of new supply chain concepts - for example, small maker businesses that deliver directly through express services like FedEx have been facilitated with the accessibility of 3D Printing at the hobbyist level.

Market Expansion & Accessibility

Additive manufacturing may also facilitate 'local' manufacturing where there was no manufacturing at all. As additive manufacturing extends its reach into remote markets, places today’s product supply chain does not or cannot reach, the method will facilitate the distribution of products and goods more equitably throughout the world. Additive manufacturing will also be able to supply manufacturers in those areas access to parts and 3D printed tools when and where they need them, without delays associated with traditional supply chain methods.

For industries where customization is a necessary aspect of the product, this is especially relevant. Perhaps the greatest examples is how additive manufacturing has facilitated the dissemination of prosthetic devices for disadvantaged children - companies such as NiaTech and Limbitless are leveraging these benefits to make an otherwise unobtainable product accessible, and at a fraction of the cost.

A prosthetic created with additive manufacturing technology.

Whatever the future supply chain will look like relative to our current model, one thing is clear: additive manufacturing will have had a hand in bringing about some valuable changes, and has secured its position as an instrumental tool for a number of industries around the globe. From consumer and commercial products, to aerospace and automotive, additive manufacturing continues to revolutionize the way things are designed and produced. For more on how 3D Printing can transform your workflow, to schdule a consultation, or simply more information,  please reach out to our team of Application Specialists.