The New Supply Chain with 3D Printing

3D printing is responsible for a multitude of changes in manufacturing dynamics. With the advent of modern 3D printing over the last decade, various industries have changed significantly thanks to the capabilities additive manufacturing brings to the table.

The supply chain is one area that has not yet been transformed by 3D printing – but these changes are coming, and the supply chain process as we know it could be disrupted by this relatively new phenomenon.

Here, we’ll explore how 3D printing could be a disruptive technology for modern-day supply chain processes in manufacturing.

Reduced Lot Sizes

3D printing can help manufacturers with large inventories control and even reduce inventory holdings through smaller lot sizes. Reducing inventory holdings cuts costs and helps match supply to demand in a more efficient way. Smaller batch sizes are inherently more versatile and more adaptive to the shifting needs of the consumer base.

Of course, this isn’t ideal for all manufacturers. This aspect of 3D printing could help a manufacturer that produces low-volume, low-complexity products, and that would benefit from the ability to quickly print and customize devices. The medical devices industry is one such beneficiary.

Widely Available Customization

Currently, customization is a process that, in theory, is terrific for manufacturers – after all, they can more accurately meet the unique needs of their customers – but is less efficient in practice. That’s because customization can overwhelm a process that better operates by consistently creating the same product over and over again – not a constant stream of products with unique parts and different orientations.

3D printing allows for more effective customization by giving manufacturers the ability to quickly produce a product that meets the specifications of a customer – all without disrupting the overall manufacturing process.

Printing on demand means a manufacturer can produce a higher product range at a more competitive cost level. Customers benefit by getting exactly what they want; manufacturers benefit by being able to offer an appealing – and lucrative – service like customization.

Shorter Responsive Cycles and Lead Times

Finally, 3D printing could disrupt supply chain processes by making manufacturers more responsive, with shorter lead times on products sent to the customer.

Currently, in order to be responsive and have short lead times, a manufacturer has to have a network of distributors with a fully-stocked inventory. For the most part, this is the only way that products can be quickly shipped to customers who order them. But with 3D printing, products can be manufactured on-site at the nearest facility for a customer who orders a particular product.

In 2014, Maersk installed 3D printers on their vessels, enabling them to print spare parts at sea without having to make a call at a port. This is an example of decentralized manufacturing made possible by 3D printing. When a customer wants or needs something, it can be created and delivered rapidly.

3D Printing in the Near Future

More manufacturers will take advantage of 3D printing as its benefits become proven. They are already known, but some companies, naturally, are reluctant to invest in such a relatively new technology. As manufacturers find success with 3D printing, more companies will adopt it – and then it will truly be a disruptive technology with profound implications for a company’s supply chain.