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Can 3D Printing Help Redesign the Supply Chain?



It’s a common sentiment among even the most-seasoned supply chain experts: the ongoing disruptions to the supply chain are like nothing they’ve ever seen.


When COVID-19 initially emerged and the world went into various iterations of shutting down, it became clear that there are hazards associated with complex global supply chains laced with dynamics beyond a company’s control.


In that context, some businesses started a shift toward nearshoring or reshoring production efforts to meet manufacturing needs.


However, such a shift takes time—especially for those with multiple tiers of suppliers in diverse locations around the globe and/or manufacturing facilities entrenched overseas.

Although there have been glimmers of hope where the pandemic is concerned, some regions of the world—like those in China—continue to deal with case surges and subsequent lockdowns that are creating a major ripple effect.


And if the challenges of a global pandemic weren’t enough to convince companies of the need for more control over their supply chains, the war in Ukraine and related impacts certainly support the argument.


Within a fragile supply chain so highly vulnerable to the crippling effects of world events, 3D printing may offer some good news—since some experts predict it may help to redesign it.


What is 3D printing?


Also referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process in which “objects are created by layering plastic or metal — as opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing in which material is removed to create an object,” according to Supply Chain Dive.


This video from Interesting Engineering provides an overview and glimpse of its potential.




Source: YouTube


In a 2021 report, Will 3D Printing Replace Conventional Manufacturing?, Lux Research forecasted that in 2030, the 3D printing market will reach $51 billion, “driven mainly by growth in production parts.”


Anthony Schiavo, Research Director at Lux Research and one of the lead authors of the report described the predicted impact of the technology.


“3D printing will be a key in the future manufacturing landscape thanks to benefits that it can bring over injection molding, machining, casting, or other conventional methods,” Schiavo said in a statement. “These benefits include customization and personalization, the ability to create complex geometries, part consolidation, and in some cases lowering costs.”


He also described the sectors where it will likely be used the most.


“The largest share of this growth will be in end-use parts, which are just 23% of the market today but will reach 38% share in 2030,” Schiavo explained. “The medical and dental industries will account for the largest share of end-use parts, reaching $4.5 billion in 2030, followed by aerospace at $3.9 billion.”



Defining the Benefits of 3D Printing


3D printing offers many benefits—such as more control over product development and a drastic reduction in lead times—but the manner in which it’s applied depends on the size and complexity of the product involved.


Supply Chain Dive notes that companies could move production inhouse or work with an outside supplier, and that there are many factors to consider when deciding which approach is best—such as associated costs and finding talent with the skill set needed.


But as Deloitte’s Louis Librandi told the publication, the associated control and efficiencies may be worth it: “Many OEMs have decided to build that capability internally because it's easier for them as they're trying to do the engineering and prototyping to be able to get that rapid feedback."


However, he said businesses that are thinking about adding 3D printing internally must consider whether they can meet product quality and certification standards.


"It goes beyond having the technical capability to print parts, it's about meeting all the other parameters, and they need to take a comprehensive approach when they're looking to decide whether to outsource or make it internally," Librandi explained.


In addition to the ability to receive rapid feedback on prototypes, Librandi cited other benefits of additive manufacturing, including:

  • Impacting the landed cost of parts

  • Avoiding tariffs and other shipping costs

  • Reducing overall lead times

  • Reducing costs related to purchasing and storing inventory

A global 2020 HP study concurred, finding that digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing “can drive economic growth, faster innovation, and more sustainable production.”


According to a press release, “HP’s Digital Manufacturing Trend Report finds that companies are increasingly investing in advanced 3D printing solutions that provide the agility, speed, and flexibility necessary to grow their business and become more resilient in an ever-changing environment.”


“One of the key insights from the global manufacturing industry is that regardless of sector or location, companies are looking to 3D printing to strengthen their supply chains, become more agile, and create more innovative product development and manufacturing strategies,” the statement said.


“This is underscored by a rising investment in 3D printing, support for 3D printing as a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing, and a greater desire for closer ecosystem collaboration to drive adoption.”


Quoted in the release, Ramon Pastor, General Manager, HP 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing commented on the positive lens through which 3D printing is viewed: “The global manufacturing sector is clearly signaling a desire for greater supply chain resiliency, more manufacturing flexibility, increased speed of innovation, and stronger environmental sustainability. And they are seeing industrial 3D printing as a way to not only lower costs and go to market faster, but as a unique competitive advantage that accelerates innovation for customers.”


Highlights from the report specific to the benefits of 3D printing include:

  • “99% of global respondents believe that digital manufacturing technologies can lead to economic growth.”

  • “Three-quarters of respondents said that additive manufacturing/3D printing helps their company be more agile, is a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing, and is a backup to traditional manufacturing.”

  • “The most cited benefit by respondents using additive manufacturing/3D printing is the increased ability to innovate.”

  • “The top ways that additive manufacturing/3D printing can reduce waste and promote a circular economy are reducing the amount of materials used and better matching supply and demand, followed by shortening and simplifying traditional supply chains, and improving service options that can prolong the life of products.”


Assessing the Value of 3D Printing


Librandi also emphasized that companies considering adding 3D printing to their capabilities shouldn’t view it as another “shiny object,” but as part of the organization’s overall strategy.


"Whether it's additive or any other advanced manufacturing technique, what problems are we trying to solve and what's the value that this technology brings?" he told Supply Chain Dive.


Findings from the 2022 MHI Annual Industry Report, Evolution to Revolution: Building the Supply Chains of Tomorrow, support the need to build a strong business case before diving into the deep end of 3D printing.


For the past eight years, MHI and Deloitte have been “tracking the adoption of eleven innovations and digital technologies that have been expected to change the supply chain industry,” including 3D printing.


“Company leaders understand at a theoretical level that their supply chains could greatly benefit from investment in innovation. However, given the endless pressure for profitable growth, they are often reluctant to invest in new technologies due to the associated costs and potential for disruption to day-to-day operations,” the report reads.


“According to this year’s survey results, and unanimous across the technologies for the first time since the inception of the MHI annual survey, the biggest barrier to adoption for all technologies featured in the survey is ‘lack of a clear business case to justify the investment’.”


Determining whether 3D printing fits the value equation for specific products and projects can be a challenge. One approach described in a recent Supply Chain Management Review article could help.


According to the editor’s note: “Supply Chain Management Review published Building a total cost framework for 3D Printed Parts, an article by Jeannette Song, William McCall and Ryan Hayford, in the November 2021 issue of the magazine. Based on original research by Song and McCall, with input from Russell E. King and Tali Rosman, the article discussed advancements in 3D printing that have put the technology within reach of more manufacturing organizations. It also includes a total cost framework for assessing which parts may be economical to produce in an additive manufacturing environment.”


To learn more, please see the full post.


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