Amongst all the disruptive technologies that are on the verge of massively impacting logistics networks and global supply chains – including Robotics, Drones and Autonomous Vehicles – we are about to see 3D Printing finally having a major impact from 2017 onwards.

Although 3D Printing is now becoming a topical issue, the technology itself – also known as ‘Additive Manufacturing’ – has actually been around for more than 30 years. Only today is it becoming mainstream and widely known, and so, in that sense, its time has come.

It is one of several technological innovations that will drive dramatic dis-intermediation of the long-established systems, structures and networks that enable and empower global supply chain ecosystems.

3D Printing uses proven additive manufacturing techniques to make three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file; it thus enables options that deliver the most powerful combination of production of However many required (quantity), On-Demand (time) and On-Location (place).

We can now electronically transmit the digital product specification across the globe to a 3D Printer which can produce the part, component or product – in whatever quantity needed, at the time it is wanted, in the exact location required.

Although the potential long-term impact is yet to be seen, there are now three particular areas where 3D printing technology is becoming extremely relevant and highly practical for global supply chains:

  • Prototyping – transmitting product specifications digitally around the world to produce prototypes on-location;
  • Aftermarket or service logistics – manufacturing critical spare parts or components on-site for a broad range of industries, such as telecommunications, aerospace and healthcare;
  • Production in remote locations – producing goods in inaccessible locations with uncertain supply chains, or in hostile environments with a need for on-demand production of goods – such as medical equipment and prosthetics.

3D Printing’s powerful combination of on-demand and on-location plays into the latest supply chain trend, whereby companies are moving beyond globalisation towards more regional supply chains, with the production taking place physically closer to the consumption.

The need to be able to respond rapidly and effectively to demand fluctuations in a complex, connected world is resulting in the latest supply chain strategy, known as ‘Right-Shoring’.

Balancing off-shoring with a combination of near-shoring and on-shoring, right-shoring is an optimised combination of each of the supply chain footprints that have preceded it, where ‘right’ is right in the sense of the right geographical location, for a particular product, to serve a particular market, at a particular period of time.

This will require much more flexible production footprints – ones that can be readily and swiftly relocated in order to calibrate supply and demand in an increasingly dynamic environment. Implementing production systems that adopt 3D Printing would likely need substantially less investment in plant and capital equipment than traditional manufacturing – and would result in extremely flexible and highly mobile operations.

Emerging consumer applications

With the availability of many 3D printers in the very affordable sub-US$500 price range, it appears that 3D printing also has a future for domestic consumer applications. Indeed, the latest forecasts for personal 3D printers predict sales volumes of more than a million units per year by 2020.

With limitations on the types of product that can be produced, the personal 3D printer is currently the domain of enthusiasts and early adopters.  However, with increased deployment and availability of personal 3D printers, we will see rapid development of consumer-oriented business models that provide download-and-print solutions for the modern household.

Think of those annoying challenges when seeking a one-off replacement component or part for your household gadgets – plastic parts or accessories for your fridge, car, bathroom cabinet, camera or train set!

One aspect regarding widespread consumer adoption of personal 3D printers is still up for debate – where in the home will the 3D Printer be located? It could be positioned at any one of four key locations – in the Living Room next to the Hi-Fi and digital TV; in the Home Office next to the PC and laptop; in the Garden Shed with the tool box and lawn mower; or next to the kettle and microwave in the Kitchen.

Bureau Services complement a sharing economy

Prior to broad-based household adoption of personal 3D printers, we will see the expansion of service bureau models, whereby the local service centre (digital print shop, mailbox shop, drop-off and collection centre, post office, etc.) implements 3D Printing systems and offers their services on a commercial basis.

An integral element of the inclination towards a sharing economy, we can envisage consumers emailing or uploading their digital product specification to the 3D printing service centre, for the on-demand production of a spare part which would be available for the consumer to collect the next day.

Conclusion

We can expect to see more exciting developments with applications of 3D printing, both in the business and consumer worlds. However, although I firmly believe that 3D Printing’s time has come, beyond the specific niche applications discussed above, I don’t see it totally revolutionising mass production and global supply chains as some observers are predicting, at least not in the medium term.


This topic was recently discussed during a wide-ranging interview with Mark by Lloyd’s Loading List, which was published online here.