3D printing is hot right now. The world of manufacturing as we know it is being reshaped by this technology. One Australian technology specialist has even gone so far as to claim 3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing”, will have an impact bigger than the internet.
In the past five years alone, progress has been overwhelming: 3D printers are being used to create anything from personalised shoes for customers to mansions (complete with a spa) — and even body parts.
But what does this all mean for manufacturers? Will it revolutionise the way we do things? Will it upend supply chains, transform business models and evolve customer relationships? Or will it just be business as usual?
One thing is for sure: 3D printing has huge potential to improve the way manufacturers do business. For decades it’s been the exclusive realm of prototyping and high-value, low-volume items; 3D printing technology has simply not been capable nor cost-effective enough to take on the manufacturing of high-volume and end products.
However, the price of 3D printers is falling dramatically, models are becoming faster and easier to use, and advances in technology mean they are more suited to mainstream manufacturing. It’s only a matter of time before 3D printing comes out of rapid prototyping and moves into the assembly line for end-use production. Here’s a case in point: nearly the entire US hearing-aid industry already relies on additive manufacturing today.
Here are 5 ways 3D printing will impact manufacturers:
- No more use-by dates
Until recently, one thing lacking in 3D printing was the ability to produce sensitive electronic components. Then, in 2015 for the first time, engineers were able to 3D-print smaller electrical components, such as inductors, capacitors, resistors, and even integrated wireless electrical-sensing systems. Putting it to the test, they printed a wireless “smart cap” for a milk carton. Using embedded sensors, the cap was able to monitor signs of spoilage. It’s a small step, but it could only be a matter time before we say goodbye to use-by dates altogether.
- Improved customisation
What if you could move production closer to customers around the world? And if you were able to customise your offerings in real time? In January this year, experts predicted that 3D printing in many materials and simple electronics will enable customisation and manufacturing to come closer to the point of consumption.
Amazon is trying to do exactly that. The US business has filed a patent application for trucks equipped with 3D printers that take online orders and produce the finished item while at the customer’s door or along the journey. One big consequence of this is that there will be no need for colossal warehouses holding millions of dollars worth of stock … which brings us to the next point.
- Restructuring supply chains
The most successful companies are continuously looking for new ways to get products to market faster and become more flexible in adapting products to local markets and customers, which typically means moving away from more traditional distribution models.
By localising manufacturing operations, 3D printing takes the ongoing re-evaluation of supply chains to the next level. A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers reveals that around 30% of manufacturers believe that the greatest disruption to emerge from widespread adoption of 3D printing will be restructuring supply chains.
One change will be the amount of inventory companies hold, especially low-volume, obsolete parts. Instead, 3D printers can be used to produce the parts as needed, and companies will be able to reduce capital expenditures on factories and warehouses.
(Here are a few other blogs about potential changes to the supply chain, looking at: disruptive innovations, changes you can’t afford to ignore, and a wrap-up of GS1’s 2015 Supply Chain Week which took in interconnectivity.)
- Push the boundaries of innovation
Now 3D printers have fallen in price, manufacturers can really start experimenting without having to worry about a full return on investment (ROI). And this is where the potential of this disruptive technology gets pushed and explored.
We’ll see more rapid product development through prototyping and making products to order. Think brand new products, with entirely new properties that wouldn’t have been possible using the old techniques. It will challenge companies to think about way they design and create objects, as well as how they distribute them to the consumer.
- Faster manufacturing
Developing and creating new parts becomes faster with 3D printing because it eliminates the need to create specialised tooling. Best of all, the design can be altered right up to moment you press “go” on production.
The bottom line is that 3D printing may not transform the manufacturing industry to the point where it becomes unrecognisable, but it has the potential to enable change across businesses — whatever their size — and the whole supply chain.
But none of this will be possible without an appetite for innovation and the capability to see it through. (And we all know innovation is a top strategy to grow manufacturing business.) Workforces will need to be retrained, or new talent needs to be drawn in, to create the designs and oversee production. And manufacturers need to be able to see an ROI after buying 3D printing equipment and investing staff training.
For Australian manufacturers, the next step is to work out how to use 3D printing to improve their business, then collaborate with their customers and supply chains to make it a reality.
With innovation a driving force behind 3D printing, you may wish to check out other articles we’ve written in our Innovation & Best Practices category archive.
For guidance on improving your supply chain, speak to our experts at Matthews.
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