Watch out for the rise of 3D printing – It will radically change the way we manage our Supply Chains

3D printing is an idea that has entered the public consciousness very recently and for a concept so new and novel it has been accepted remarkably quickly. However if you were to mention 3D printing to the public the image that will come to mind is plastic novelties, Star Trek style replication and controversies around guns.

The real revolution, however, is taking place in industrial processes and supply chains. When applied to metals the process is more generally described as additive manufacturing and has possibilities of widespread application. Theoretically anything that could be machined from solid material could be manufactured by this process, but the exciting prospect is for items that cannot be currently produced by conventional means, whether fabrication of casting. This opens up opportunities to manufacture very specialised items that might require holes that cannot produced by drilling or from materials that cannot be cast.

The current applications of the process have been mainly in rapid prototyping and other such mainly one off activities. The future extensions of the concept raise many questions about its place in supply chains. At a superficial level it could be said that not much would change, raw material is delivered to a factory, finished goods are produced and delivered to an end customer. However when the concept is taken further opportunities arise for distributed manufacturing. This could mean that the production of the finished item could take place nearer to its point of use. This concept is particularly applicable, say, to the manufacture of components for the aerospace or automotive industries. Immediately the whole nature of the supply chain is altered, specialised components are no longer delivered to the assembly plant, raw material for their production joins the other raw materials entering the plant and a whole link in the chain disappears.

Now the future may not be as extreme as that and we are certainly some way away from making that dream a reality, but it will pay to consider what changes may arise as the technology of additive manufacturing becomes more mature.

The raw material for the process, which is an alloy in powder form, is currently produced and transported in relatively small quantities. It is moved around the country almost in parcel format in small bags or drums. What are the implications for this being done on a much larger scale? Would the unit load typically become a pallet of drums or bags, or would bulk transport begin to become important? This could lead to the development of powder transport becoming like bulk powder cement deliveries or perhaps a smaller unit load is required owing to the weight of the material. Perhaps a pallet sized hopper unit? Use of such a complex unit load could lead to new pathways being required for return logistics of empty units.  New power alloys are always being developed and if entirely different alloys are required for each manufactured application the idea of a universal 3D printer using a universal material, like the current domestic demonstration models, is not likely to be realised. Stock holding of a range of this expensive material has not really been investigated yet. Are there shelf life implications to be considered? In addition there are other consumable materials used in the process, such as inert gases and although a supply chain exists for these, is it appropriate for the increase in throughput that extensive use of additive manufacturing could cause?

The machines used to carry out the additive process are expensive and require intensive use to justify their cost, but there are likely to be periods of downtime such as for maintenance, pattern change and heat dissipation that would mean that production would not be continuous and uniform. How would a user of components produced by this method adapt his requirements to this pattern of activity and fit the production into a just-in-time manufacturing philosophy? Perhaps a different level of reserve stockholding would be required to ensure continuous availability of components?

Taking into account that this technology is still young there remains much work to do to understand the changes that it will require to be in the supply chain for both component manufacturing companies and component using organisations. The next few years will see the pattern begin to develop and accepted processes put into place.