Why is 3D printing revolutionary for the supply chain? (infographic)

Imagine having virtually no raw material inventory on hand as all the components and parts you need can be made to order.

Imagine having virtually no inventory of finished products because you can manufacture products exactly when they are ordered in real time and have them personalized or customized to a customer’s unique specifications.

While this may sound far-fetched, the incredible advances in 3D printing or on-demand manufacturing are helping to bring these capabilities closer to the realm of possibility.

My story with 3D, On Demand, Printing

My experience with 3D printing started when I joined a national retailer focused on selling books. In addition, they expanded their product offering with a large number of items, including toys and electronics.

A gentleman who joined the company on the same day as me was to be responsible for running the toy business. He had just been recruited by a large, fast-growing toy manufacturer and distributor.

As he set up his office, I noticed that he had a lot of cool items on display. One of these, in particular, was a plastic toy prototype of a character from a popular movie. When I asked him about it, he told me it was made by a 3D printer.

They could prototype any product in real time and make changes instantly and cheaply. You no longer had to pay for expensive molds and tools. This has enabled them to lower their costs and cut their time to market by weeks and months, giving them a huge competitive advantage.

I thought it was all so cool.

Later, while meeting with the various suppliers of this retailer, I visited one of their largest booksellers. Among other things, they had a large operation dedicated to the on-demand printing of books.

When you consider that there are literally millions and millions of books out there, you realize that it is impossible for ANY retailer to stock at least one of every book. And while the latest books sell in bulk, most skus are sold in one-piece quantities.

Every retailer wants to offer their customers an “endless aisle” catalog, even though it’s physically impractical to stock one of each title. But this is where on-demand printing comes in.

This retailer was able to take orders for discrete quantities of each individual book, print it on demand, and ship it to customers in record time.

The result was that the company was able to meet every single customer’s demand for every single item, anywhere in the world. And they could offer an “endless aisle” product offering without having to carry prohibitive and physically impractical inventory.

History and Scope of 3D Printing

It seems like 3D printing is an exciting new technology. But the early concepts of this technology date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

The technology involves the creation of a digital model of the object to be created. This digital model is then “printed” onto a platform layer by layer, with each subsequent layer building on the layer below, to ultimately create a physical reproduction of the digital model.

The dominant print material used to be plastics, but now it includes metals, glass, organic materials and hybrid materials. And as the number and types of materials increase, so do the potential applications.

The price point for 3D printers is now low enough that you can buy one for your home. It is no longer the exclusive domain of researchers and large corporations.

Applications and examples

3D printing continues to enable the delivery of products for every stage of the manufacturing process, from prototyping to sub-assembly to final product.

It finds application in a variety of industries including manufacturing, healthcare, fashion, aerospace, automotive, construction, transportation, education, furniture, toys, and marketing.

And there are numerous examples of 3D printed products, including clothing, cars, houses and buildings, medical items (e.g. prostheses), food, circuit boards, jewelry and dental equipment.

What does this mean for the supply chain?

As we said in our opening comments, 3D printing, or on-demand manufacturing, has tremendous potential for supply chain transformation.

How many times have you needed quick prototypes or even faster changes to prototypes? How many times has a particular item been out of stock, stopping manufacturing and fulfilling customer orders. And how many times have you been unable to fulfill a customer order because you don’t have that item in stock or can’t get it on time?

Every supply chain professional has experienced these situations and more.

So the possibilities that 3D printing, or as I prefer to say, on-demand manufacturing, brings to the supply chain are tremendous.

It might be a huge leap forward, but imagine being able to create prototypes, production parts, and personalized end products on demand. You would reduce costs, improve productivity, reduce inventory, increase sales, increase customer satisfaction, and improve cash flow and return on investment.

Conclusion

The potential to drive revolutionary changes in the supply chain is enormous.

And there are real limitations in terms of technology, resources, infrastructure, cost and more.

But over time, all these limitations will disappear.

Visionary supply chain leaders will seek to incorporate a 3D printing (or additive manufacturing or on-demand manufacturing) capability (whether in-house or outsourced) into their future strategies.

Everyone else will be left behind.

Originally published October 29, 2019.

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