Deep Thought – the Additive Manufacturing boom and the Supply Chain

There continues to be much interest in the development of AM (Additive manufacturing) and the implications of the demise of the physical movement of goods on the supply chain.  It’s a hot topic on the supply chain agenda with the Chief Executive of the CILT referring to this in a recent speech as well as newspaper articles highlighting the presence of 3D printed items in the new Airbus.

A common view is that manufacturing will become distributed to the point of use and any item will then be conjured up from an all-purpose printer. However, considering the range of materials used to produce everyday objects, it is unlikely that any single machine is going to be able to produce multi-material products.

At The Logistics Business we have been involved in assisting companies consider the effects of this technology on their supply chains. The catalyst for consideration is to consider opportunities to produce items that would otherwise be un-manufactural by conventional subtractive techniques, owing to the required geometries.

New problems arise when AM is used on an industrial scale for metallic objects, especially when the metals involved can be complex alloys. Firstly the metal must be presented in a powder form of uniform size. This is not easy to achieve consistently.  The question of batch size and traceability of the powder material impacts the logistics of the production process, when a full back up stock of appropriate powder cannot be held and the properties of differing batches cannot be guaranteed to be identical.

Then the actual production process can be very slow. The layering process lays down material that can only be microns thick. Current machines can take days to produce items that only have a volume of a few litres. New machines and improved software is helping to reduce this time but the common perception of instant production is not reality. Logistics thinking must take this fact into account.

During production the item is subjected to heat to ‘weld’ the powder together and the finished item will often require further heat treatment to relieve stresses. The post processing implications of this technique can be considerable, often involving transporting parts to other workshops for finishing. Removing the article from the plate it was made on can also affect the properties of the finished item and the logistics of transporting partially finished items.

After production the finished item is likely to be incorporated in an assembly including other conventionally manufactured parts.  Production in the automotive industry will be subject to the same just-in-time availability requirements, meaning stock holding must be able to absorb the ups and downs of final production. Here there is no advantage for AM components, the parts must still be produced in advance and stockpiled since the production and processing time exceeds the lead time of the lean production schedules.

Supply chain challenges are present in the whole production cycle for AM parts from powder to finished product and each stage requires the same detailed approach to supply chain optimisation as conventional manufacturing. 3D printing, in its current industrial form, does not offer the instant and simple production response that many people think and introduces some new challenges.

At The Logistics Business we are sure that the challenges will be overcome and that AM will become an accepted manufacturing method for a range of materials.