3D Printing: Let’s Not Manufacture False Dawns

3D printing is being hailed as a breakthrough technology that will revolutionize manufacturing and supply chain management. This may be the case, but we should avoid repeating the mistake of relying on hype to judge its value.

For those who are still unfamiliar with the concept, in 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) a digital file of a computer-aided design is sent to a “printer” that creates an object by depositing successive layers of materials a few microns in thickness. The “ink” from which items are fabricated can be various materials such as molten plastic and composites.

Over the last several years 3D printing hardware costs have decreased significantly and the range of 3D printed products has expanded. Yet there are a number of important supply chain-related questions about the technology and its application that still need to be answered. Here are a few examples.

More or less visibility? It is very difficult to monitor every supplier in a multi-tiered global supply chain. The recent disaster in Bangladesh where hundreds of workers lost their lives when a building collapsed serves as a horrific reminder of this challenge.

The very nature of 3D printing technology with its relatively low capital cost and potential for producing a wide array of products could widen the supplier base. The technology could enhance the manufacturing capacity of every supplier, including lower-tier operators. Picture a small vendor with a bank of these machines that churns out multiple products.

Will we have even less visibility if today’s supply chains become populated with many more suppliers equipped with 3D printing technology?

Quality issues. 3D printing makes it easier to alter product specifications. A company, can, say, tweak a design spec to cut production and shipping costs by reducing the weight of an item. How will manufacturers prevent unauthorized modifications that compromise product quality and/or safety?

IP tangle. In one future scenario third-party logistics providers equipped with 3D printers become manufacturers and designers, and distribution centers morph into electronic warehouses for product designs. In these situations, who owns the IP of the products?

Even shorter life cycles. High product obsolescence rates, customization, and SKU proliferation make supply chains more complex. Will the race to market new/tailored products become even quicker when companies are plugged into extremely versatile lines of 3D printers that make products in dramatically shorter cycle times? If so, will manufacturers be able to make enough margin on these products?

Uncertain timeline. Will the technology genuinely compete as a mass production method? This is not the case today. And what are the implications for raw material supply, consistency, and quality?

Trust factor. There is a lack of trust in 3D printed items. How can adopters of the technology overcome these negative perceptions?

Posing questions like these does not discredit a potentially paradigm-shifting technology; it helps us to take a step back and evaluate its evolutionary track dispassionately.

The cost of not doing so can be high, as the many organizations that made early investments in immature RFID systems know full well.

What do you think are other hidden issues that could hinder the broader adoption of 3D printing in supply chains?

By Ken Cottrill, Global Communications Consultant, MIT CTL, kencott@mit.edu

Evaluating the worth of supply chain innovations that appear to open up new business horizons will be explored at MIT CTL’s Crossroads conference on June 26th, 2013, on the MIT campus, Cambridge, MA. Register for Crossroads 2013: SCM as Future Enabler here.

Download the pre-Crossroads white paper Innovative or Inconclusive? Evaluating New Supply Chain Ideas here.

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