Arguably, 3D printing is becoming more prevalent as a participant in the logistics industry, with potentially astronomical implications on the supply chain. Clearly, 3D printing is evolving rapidly; analysts predict that over the following four years the industry will be worth more than ten billion dollars.
But to what extent could this development affect the logistics industry as a whole? With its involvement in the supply chain at the primitive stages, will we see a 3D printing in manufacturing revolution in our life time?
How does the process work?
Charles Hull developed the technology in the 1980s to facilitate the production of basic polymer objects. Plenty of industries, from aerospace to medicine, are now heavily investing in 3D printing.
The process relies on the build-up of incredibly thin layers. A printer computes a digital blueprint of the product and then a slow procedure commences in which material is dropped according to said product design. Despite the slow pace of the print, there is very little setup time. The possible intricacy of this technique has enabled extremely precise levels of detail, unachievable in other methods of product manufacture.
How does it affect the supply chain?
As a manufacturing technique, there are clearly positive and negative aspects which must undergo analysis.
Positive impacts on the supply chain:
- More local production is facilitated. This minimises the costs of shipping goods around the globe. Furthermore, this is clearly environmentally beneficial.
- Local production additionally allows customers to receive their orders quickly.
- When products do need to be transported across long distances, the 3D print process often means said products are lighter. As a result, fuel consumption is reduced, leading to fewer CO2 emissions.
- It is also environmentally efficient to cut out the delivery and assembly of materials at the initial stage, as it can be manufactured at one specific point.
- Keeping simply blueprints in digital storage would cut down storage space for manufacturers. This will also reduce the amount of energy needed to maintain a warehouse.
- Material consumption is lowered due to the fact that the process only uses the materials necessary, there is no excess.
- Highly complex and detailed structures can be produced, that which cannot be constructed by other manufacturing techniques.
There are, of course, negative implications considered here:
- What does this mean for those employed at each stage of the supply chain that could no longer exist if this technology becomes normality? Low level assembly workers, for example, become largely redundant.
- Retraining workers in 3D printing in manufacturing is costly and time consuming. The current design software is incredibly complicated.
- The current 3D technology is not yet anywhere near fast enough to compete with high-speed manufacturing machinery. In addition, it is also not well versed in a great number of materials.
- The cost of printing in three dimensions is currently costly, not making practical sense for most manufacturers.
After assessing the above points, Amazon have recently been investing in 3D printing technology, prototyping the notion of printing products on the customer’s doorstep. The way in which this works is with the use of “mobile manufacturing hubs.” These manufacturing hubs contain 3D printing machines which enable local production literally at the location of delivery.
Amazon argues that this method enables a much faster delivery, which additionally eliminates any potential for damage in transit. Warehouse space is also reduced, benefiting the company and bearing less environmental impact. As a result of these points, customer satisfaction is increased, which is clearly financially advantageous.
So what does this mean for the future of 3D printing?
Overall, we still remain in the very primitive stages of 3D printing in manufacturing. Whereas many see its potential to change product manufacture and therefore the supply chain as a whole, there are responses which suggest we’re not quite ready for the revolution yet.
In its current position, 3D printing is often less cost effective than present technique. However, many of these processes do not allow the same level of customisation, which is becoming increasingly more desirable.
The current impact on distribution is low, but this doesn’t necessary stand for the future of manufacturing. The question remains as to how far away we are from its saturation into the industry. Some argue that we will witness its influence on the supply chain within the decade, with the breakdown of a global supply chain and the initiation of high-tech systems of localised and connected suppliers.
Perhaps the most sensible suggestion is the presence of 3D printing alongside other methods of manufacture. It has clear benefits but it seems impossible to consider a total breakdown of the supply chain, at least at this stage of development.
What do you think? Are we miles away or closer than many suspect? Drop us a comment or a tweet @ApolloCardiff and join the debate.