3D Printing

3D Printing Will Represent the Assembly Line of this Generation

Take a look at the history of supply chains and it may lead you all the way back to Henry Ford’s Assembly Line in 1913. As an industrial designer, mass production of consumer goods was the birthplace of my trade, and, though arguably the root of our current consumption levels, it revolutionized manufacturing and supply chains.

But did it? The Assembly Line is often the poster child of the Industrial Revolution, but it took a great deal of innovation throughout the entire ecosystem to eventually birth optimized processes like Amazon and manufacturing systems like Alibaba. So, how do we go from efficiently building automobiles to next-day delivery and the accessible manufacturing of essentially anything? And how does this all relate to 3D printing?

Increasing the speed and efficiency of producing products through the assembly line only covered processes from raw materials to marketable product. Over a few decades, the implementation of the shipping container, UPC part numbers, and other hardware/system advancements filled in a few blanks with great technology, but it wasn’t until the rise of software solutions in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management that globalization and companies like Alibaba & Amazon could flourish. Revolutionary software is often the adhesion between existing technologies to produce a disruptive solution.

Software will be the catalyst in connecting 3D Printing and Supply Chain.

3D printing is a great technology fueled by incredible innovations in material science, hardware, and product development, but it is not yet a system. When we build systems around 3D printing, we will see mass disruption to supply chain management and redefine how we design, manufacture, and distribute parts.

So, how do we build systems around 3D printing? We build software to integrate the existing technologies and restructure everything we know about supply chains. Optimizing supply chains (and businesses in general) typically boils down to three things: removing waste, cutting times, lowering costs.

3D Printing doesn’t just remove waste, it inherently repurposes it.

How materials used in 3D printing, from metals to thermoplastics, are inherently ‘recyclable’ is a different conversation, but an interesting way to think about how we may work towards ridding the world of monstrous hybrids. 3D printing may have an impact on several aspects of supply chain waste, but the obvious include over-production, waiting, transportation, and excessive inventory.

3D printing is the backbone of agile, on-demand manufacturing, eliminating over-production and excessive inventory altogether. It disrupts economies of scale by taking away the majority of upfront costs associated with the likes of injection molding. Oh, you want to manufacture and distribute a different product tomorrow? Do it overnight.

With manufacturing shifting closer to end users, other than sending some electrons through glass (doesn’t fiberoptic cable blow your mind?), there is minimal transportation. 3D printing service bureaus are popping up everywhere and Gartner projects a just under 30% increase over the next five years with shipments of printers doubling this year from 2014. With the flexibility of 3D printers rendering them as mini-factories, we’re putting manufacturers in everyone’s backyard and eventually right in their homes. Sourcing hyper-local manufacturing or manufacturing at the user level eventually eliminates transportation as part of the supply chain.

What about time? Aren’t Printers slow?

Saving time with locally-sourced 3D printing is about manufacturing and delivery in the same day; no inventory, and no cross-world transportation with our current hub & spoke systems. When it comes to time: sure, printers take a while to produce products, but it feels like every other week I wake up to an article on printers that are 100x faster than their predecessors. It’s only a matter of time until this is an irrelevant point. Wasn’t travel slow once? There will come a time when it’s comparing horses to airplanes.

Looking back: the impact 3D printing will have on the supply chain.

The advancements in hardware are exponential and, now with Autodesk and HP’s involvement against the existing players such as Stratasys and 3D Systems, competition is becoming fierce. The industry is beginning to invest heavily in software to bring down the inherent barriers of CAD and create marketplaces to share and create products, but the industry is still stuck in the first adopter stage hacking together ways to make the technology easier, intuitive, and practical. Software that uses this technology as a pawn in the larger game of supply chains will revolutionize how we design, manufacture, and distribute parts. It will disrupt every industry, infiltrate every vertical, connect the world’s products, and drive the next global industrial revolution. Let’s stop focusing on the technology and understand that, much like the Assembly Line, it’s a mere piece of a much larger puzzle.