Tuesday, February 11, 2014
3-D Printing: An End to Supply Chain?
Imagine a desktop machine that can print your sun glasses or a phone case or your favorite coffee cup. You liked a piece a jewelry but it is too expensive to afford, what if you can print that too? No, we are not talking about 20XX. This is happening very much in the present world! And 3D printing is enabling this to happen.
3D printing or Additive manufacturing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing removes various steps from the conventional supply chain model and brings production close to customers. It is estimated to have enough potential to shake the world of well established supply chains. 3D printing is inspired from the age old phenomenon of formation of stalactites and stalagmites. But unlike these slowly occurring natural processes, 3D printing is much faster and follows a design developed by computer models and software. The 3D printers are directed by these computer models to create and add layers to form the final object.
Companies such as NASA for tools in space, GE for turbine parts and Formula one car racing teams are already leveraging the benefits of 3D printing.
Make Anything you Want
A Traditional Supply Chain
- Mass Production (e.g. in China).
- Longer flow times.
- High transportation cost.
- Cost involved in warehousing of products.
- High Carbon footprint.
A 3D Printing Supply Chain:
- Customized production.
- Pulled by end users demand.
- Lower or no transport cost.
- Lower or no warehousing cost.
- Shorter flow times.
- Lower carbon footprint.
CNN recently conducted a survey which included 20 items ranging from orthotic insoles, an iPhone case, garlic press, safety razor, perogi mold, to spoon holders. It was found that printing all 20 objects took about 25 hours and cost a grand total of $18 in plastic and electricity. The savings ranged from $294 to $1,926. The saving was dependent on the quality of the item produced. depending on the quality of the comparable retail products. If we apply Moore's law to these facts we can say that by 2020 this process will take one hour and cost $5. 
Consider an example of a 3D printer in an auto repair shop, the printers can produce components required on the fly, eliminating the need of getting them shipped. This will not only save time but also other resources involved in the shipment of these parts.
3D printing will eliminate the need of factories opening up opportunities for on the fly and small scale development. Even though this might sound like a threat to delivery companies, it might open up business opportunities for them in form of supplying raw materials to these 3D printers.
3D printing makes it much easier to tailor products to customer needs. It is mere by tweaking the computerized model, one could produce limitless variation of products based on their requirements.