It sounds like something straight out of a science-fiction film. Imagine you’re on a freighter in the middle of the ocean and a hose on the engine’s compressor fails and you need a replacement immediately, so you simply turn on a machine that downloads a blueprint and fabricates a new hose within minutes. As fanciful as this sound, it’s more science than fiction, and this type of technology called 3-D printing is poised to revolutionize the manufacturing industry and significantly impact the supply chain pipeline in terms of time and cost-efficiency.
3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of manufacturing parts or products using digital blueprints contained within a company’s cloud or other integrated memory system. 3-D printers download these blueprints and then create fully-functional, three-dimensional products. While this technology still lacks the complexity to fabricate large-scale objects or items, many within the manufacturing industry believe 3-D printing represents the third industrial revolution and will totally reengineer how the global manufacturing sector functions.
Aside from reinventing the overall product development lifecycle, it’s not difficult to see how such a seismic shift in the conception and manufacturing of products will impact end-to-end supply chain logistics. The relative ease of design and fabrication is sure to shorten supply chains and increase productivity, and as such here are 4 ways 3-D printing will enhance – and change – some of today’s common supply chain concerns.
It may seem obvious, but the overall effect on manufacturing processes will have a huge impact on lead times and front-end supply chain management. First, the ability to fabricate parts or products with little notice and rapid turnaround time will allow supply chain planners and managers to troubleshoot minor breakdowns and bottlenecks – a huge value-added piece of tech to leverage in the hopes of managing a cost-effective, lean supply pipeline. Secondly, 3-D printing will allow OEM’s to essentially localize an increasingly global manufacturing sector by making it possible for companies to establish small productions facilities where 3-D printers can function as small-run manufacturing lines to supplement larger production schemes. This will also provide supply chain managers with greater and quick access to the products necessary to fill on-the-fly orders and maintain fluidity across all points of the supply stream.
Because 3-D printers heavily rely on the Internet of Things, Big Data, and cloud technology, inventory best practices will become digitized and operate more on a virtual inventory level rather than traditional inventory models. Supply chain managers will be able to access blueprints for a specific part or product, request fabrication – or perhaps even engage the manufacturing of a part or product – and track that product from creation to the warehouse in real-time. This will not only provide more faster, detailed reporting and analytics on inventory and warehouse management, but it will also help increase communication across the supply chain. The ability to share this data will lead to enhanced supply chain visibility and agility, both of which are prized qualities in today’s global supply marketplace.
If you can increase manufacturing lead time and decrease the lag in inventory and warehouse management, it stands to reason a supply chain manager’s capability to ensure faster, accurate order fulfillment will also be enhanced by 3-D printing. Imagine a customer requires an immediate influx of product to combat a transportation breakdown by a massive snow storm. Using 3-D printing technology, a supply chain manager can request or create the supplemental product and process the order for immediate shipping to help meet the customer’s demands. Not only will this help forge a lasting, profitable relationship between supplier and customer, this also helps reduce overall costs and streamline a process of ordering and shipping that can often be a major drain on personnel and resources.
As the manufacturing and supply industries segment and reach new regions and countries through establishing new hubs and/or ports, 3-D printing technology offers supply chain managers a more localized freight solution. Rather than utilizing warehouse management software to procure the proper quantity of product, transport that product from the warehouse to a freight center, and finally transferring the product to a mode of transport – air, ground, etc – 3-D printing solutions will eliminate the need to move product from the warehouse to the dock. Small run productions can be manufactured in the same physical space as transit hubs, decreasing lag time in shipment and delivery. Additionally, the ability schedule and monitor on-the-fly shipments will also help supply chain managers make the most cost-effective decisions when deciding which mode of freight to leverage given the quantity and nature of products being shipped.