Opening New Doors for 3D Printing
In our previous blog post, we examined how 3D printers affect how we design, how quickly products get to market, how we make tools, and how we fix things—but is that the extent to which additive manufacturing will be felt? The answer is a decided no. Additive manufacturing is already opening doors to bigger impacts down the road. In today’s post, we will spell out how 3D printing will change manufacturing in the future. We highlighted how 3D printing is affecting the way that we design. This impact has largely centered around how quickly we can develop new products and arrive at better designs. Overwhelmingly, designs are still in this phase, orienting around legacy manufacturing technologies. In particular, parts are designed for casting or injection molding as the expected means of mass production. That is beginning to change with improved speeds and decreased costs of 3D printing. Up to this point, 3D printers have been fighting a game with one hand tied behind their back. Uniquely capable of achieving geometries that are otherwise impossible, 3D printers have largely been allocated against printing designs that are readily made with other technologies, and as a function of that, 3D printers are rarely the current choice for mass production. That may be changing.
Since machines are getting faster and more cost-effective, designers and procurement managers are considering whether 3D Printing will change manufacturing in terms of scalability. For production runs in the thousands or tens of thousands, this may be the case; especially if the designs were created with 3D printing in mind. Take for instance the GE fuel nozzle. It serves as a benchmark example of how a company was able to create a better performing product and fabricate it more cost-effectively through the use of additive manufacturing. At this moment, the examples of those high-performance additive parts are largely limited to the aerospace and medical industries. However, we have every reason to believe that the industrial, energy, consumer products, and automotive markets are right on course to embrace additive similarly. Recent announcements from Ford and Gillette reinforce this notion.
Another key way in which 3D printing will change manufacturing in the months, years, and decades to come is how we will manage our supply chain. As companies unlock the design potential of 3D printing with higher-performance parts that take full advantage of additive manufacturing’s ability to create organic shapes, lattice structures, gradient alloys, or unique material formulations, the only viable option for fabricating these parts will be 3D printing. Once that occurs, the structure of the traditional supply chain will fall apart. No longer will it be practical to have fabrication take place in far-away, low-cost countries when there is virtually no labor input to the parts. The cost combined with the delay of maritime shipping will bring fabrication much closer to the end customer. As a result, the fabrication of end-use parts or sub-assemblies may occur at forwarding locations in the supply chain: the distributor, retail, or even consumer level. We refer to this as the supply web.
Instead of a relatively direct chain that connects a product from a low-cost center of mass production to a semi-local distribution center, to a local retail location, to an end consumer, fabrication may instead take place at any step along that path. A geographic overlay of how parts feed into this production flow looks more like a web than a chain. This will have a profound impact on the way companies manage their own supply chain. Their traditional partners may not be suited for a supply web world and they may need to entertain new partners who are prepared for this paradigm. Additionally, companies may increasingly consider managing their own fleets of 3D printers, and doing so may provide them an opportunity to potentially create cost savings for their end products.
As noted previously, 3D Printing will change the way we look at the supply chain. For companies that fully utilize 3D printing’s ability for localized manufacturing, inventory management practices will fundamentally change as well. Unlike a traditional manufacturing environment where asset-production order is established and a certain amount of safety stock is kept of a given SKU, 3D printing will instead allow for the on-demand fabrication of parts as demand signals dictate. Gone will be the days of requiring huge advance commitments to quantity since the parts can be fabricated on demand. Again, one of the core challenges to this is simply how many machines are available to fulfill the program. That is why distributed fabrication solutions such as 3Diligent are an intriguing partner to companies, given the relatively elastic supply of a distributed fabrication solution.
A final way in which 3D printing will fundamentally change manufacturing is in how we customize products. Customization is already the main focus of current manufacturing methods. However, the product itself is not truly customized for the customer. Rather, the combination of parts is customized. Take for instance a personalized elbow or knee brace. In the current paradigm, each component is set to a size of small, medium, or large and the most extensive customization may be in combining those constituent parts. Another customization may be in picking a particular color or material. This is not true customization.
3D Printing will facilitate truly customized products on a massive scale. In this future state, an individual’s unique body geometry can be scanned and fabricated on-demand to fit those exact dimensions in ways not currently possible. Personalization of that part may extend beyond the shape and into the color or design imprinted upon it. We point here to the most extreme case where every customer has his or her own unique SKU, but the likelihood exists that there are many gradients between the current state of customization today and a full massively bespoke reality as well. As we touched on in our previous discussion, the rapid iteration cycles 3D printing facilitates also mean different product designs can be tried out in different markets and many additional SKUs can be effectively supported. We believe 3D printing will change customization by moving toward digital media or advertising. Products will be put into the market relatively affordably for customers to react to and the ones that succeed can gain greater traction in the market.
In our previous blog post, we called out the ways 3D printing has already changed the world of manufacturing, and while those changes are significant, we think the changes still to come will be even more impactful to manufacturing as we know it. The changes to come are massive, including improving the performance of parts through enabling entirely new geometries and material combinations, changing the way our supply chain is structured, impacting the way we think about just-in-time inventory, and lastly in the way that we customize parts to individual desires. It’s going to be a fun trip, and at 3Diligent, we’re excited to be your sherpas for the journey.