3-D Printing

According to an Industry Week article, additive manufacturing could make our complicated global supply chain obsolete within the next decade, replacing it with a new economy based on a high-tech system of local, connected suppliers.

Additive manufacturing techniques like select laser sintering (SLS) can build complex 3-D parts directly from powdered metal, turning globally distributed production efforts into in-house jobs.

Note: SLS involves the use of a high power laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powders into a mass that has a desired three-dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses powdered material by scanning cross-sections generated from a 3-D digital description of the part on the surface of a powder bed. After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness, a new layer of material is applied on top, and the process is repeated until the part is completed.

Rise of Printing Bureau

Central to this system are companies like RedEye-the print-on-demand service division of additive manufacturing giant, Stratasys – a localized network of printers distributed globally to produce parts regionally.

With the old system, you had engineers designing widgets and then getting a supplier in China to produce it – just to send it back and go into inventory. However, this technology can send the 3-D digital file to a printing facility close to the point of origin.

Manufacturing cells at RedEye consist of rows of printers churning out finished plastic parts straight from CAD files submitted by engineers and customers around the world.

IBM on Digital Supply Chain

According to a spokesperson at IBM Electronics, they tested the viability of a true supply chain using 3-D printing and put together a timeline for the payoff of the new technology. They said it is already viable for smaller items and will be for larger ones within five years. They expect 3-D printing to be the single largest driver of supply chain transformation.

Their analysis, published in the report, “The New Software-Enabled Supply Chain”, states these technologies can produce an average 23% unit cost benefit and reduce the level of required economic scale by a whopping 90%.

IBM cautioned that 23% isn’t exactly a revolution, and they would expect traditional manufacturing to improve its own productivity that much during that time period. But the 90% reduction in economic scale is considered “earth shattering.”

A single line from the IBM report captures the potential disruptions offered by 3-D printing and the hopes of every new market on the cusp of the boom: “By changing requirements for scale, location and volume, the software-defined supply chain won’t just change costs or manufacturing processes – it will effectively upend the industry structure as we know it.”

For more information, read the article on “3-D Printing the Supply Chain” by Travis Hessman at this Industry Week web page.

3-D Printing at UPS Stores

3-D printing of prototypes and small parts is now being offered to start-ups and small business owners choosing to avoid their own investment. For example, the UPS Store is testing 3-D printing services at select store locations to produce items like engineering parts, functional prototypes, acting props, architectural models and fixtures for cameras, lights, and cables.

In terms of impact on inventory and logistics, you can print on demand. You don’t need the finished product stacked on shelves or stacked in warehouses. When you need a product, you just make it. And, that collapses the supply chain down to its simplest parts, adding new efficiencies to the system.

For more information, read the article on “UPS Store Offers 3-D as a Service” by Tom Andel at this Material Handing & Logistics web page.