Apr 15, 2016 | By Kira
As a 3D printing news source, we are constantly finding and covering the latest trends, gadgets and innovative applications relating to 3D printing technology. This is, of course, both exciting and informative, however there is another side to the 3D printing industry that is equally important: its real-world affect on global supply chains.
Dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution,’ additive manufacturing has promised to change how industrial manufacturers develop and produce just about everything—from aerospace components to medical devices to consumer goods and electronics. Yet just how realistic is to say that 3D printing has ‘revolutionized’ traditional supply chain management and productivity?
To shed a little light on the subject, international research firm Gartner has recently published a data-driven report on 3D printing’s value to the supply chain.
A key finding of the report is that 65% of supply chain professionals are using or will invest in 3D printing over the next two years. “We found widespread acceptance of 3D printing which is having a near-term impact on supply chains,” explained Pete Basiliere, who co-authored the report alongside Mike Burkett.
They provided further insights to break down these findings. Of the 248 supply chain professionals from across various industries who were interviewed:
- 26% said they are currently using or piloting 3D printing
- 39% said they plan to invest in 3D printing within 2 years
- 25% plan to invest in 3D printing within 2-5 years
- and only 10% said they have no plans to invest in 3D printing within the next 5 years.
According to Basiliere and Burkett, these findings were consistent across consumer, industrial, and healthcare value chains.
A second key question they sought to answer was not just whether 3D printing is being used, but how. We already know that additive manufacturing can significantly reduce costs and lead times compared to traditional manufacturing. However, as the chart below shows, 3D printing’s highest value to existing supply chains is its ability to produce unique products and provide customers with more flexibility and choice. By transforming the customer experience, 3D printing’s value therefore goes beyond mere cost and efficiency improvements.
Supply Chain View of the Primary Value of 3D Printing
So far, so good, however Gartner’s report is just as sensitive to the opportunities of 3D printing as to its constraints. As promising as it is, 3D printing is certainly not a ‘be all end all’ manufacturing solution.
In regard to the limits of 3D printing in the supply chain, the report highlights three important considerations.
First, despite the range of 3D printing technologies in use today (including FDM, SLS, SLA, DLMS, SLM and more), they are not interchangeable. Supply chain professionals must therefore carefully choose their 3D printer based on the intended use of the items that will be produced.
Second, 3D printing is currently limited to “a narrow range of plastic, ceramic, biological and metal materials” compared to traditional manufacturing processes. Again, companies should take this into consideration when deciding what types of products they are making, and whether 3D printing is the best option.
Third, although additive manufacturing is generally understood to cut lead times, Gartner warns that the total process cycle time (including preparations, and post-processing) as well as process variability must be carefully evaluated. In some cases, traditional injection molding or other methods might still be preferable. In addition to these three key considerations, the report details other concerns relating to 3D printing, including cyber security and the need for supply chain strategists to include IP protection in their plans for 3D printing.
The questions surrounding 3D printing’s impact on supply chains, as well as the debate over 3D printing versus traditional manufacturing, are nothing new. However, the more insight we have, the more informed decisions we can make.
Gartner’s latest report on 3D printing and the supply chain proves that a majority of supply chain professionals already are investing or will invest in 3D printing technology. If you’re one of them, their best advice is to weigh the risks and rewards of 3D printing, and to consider its uses beyond prototyping to actually producing custom tooling and finished goods.