Increased competition. 3-D printing technology
development has accelerated, propelled by the expiry
of many of the original patents. From 2011 to 2015, the
number of makers of industrial 3-D printers doubled. With
increased competition, 3-D printer prices have fallen,
making them a more viable option for organizations.
Manufacturers of complex items, such as in the aerospace
and medical industries, have been quickest to embrace
the technology. General Electric, one of the first to make
finished products using 3-D printing, recently opened a
3-D printing plant to produce parts for its LEAP (
leading-edge aviation propulsion) jet engines in Auburn, Alabama.
The plant is the first of three that GE intends to build.
More than 98 percent of hearing
aids produced globally are made
using 3-D printing. Even in mass
manufacturing, 3-D printing has
a role, radically reducing the
cost and time to make casts for
Manufacturing isn’t the only area
where 3-D printing benefits supply
management. Others are:
Complexity. Many products are
made up of multiple parts to cope
with the restrictions of traditional
manufacturing. 3-D printing
collapses those constraints,
reducing the number of separate
parts needed in a product, thus
lowering the complexity — and
cost — of the supply chain.
Inventory. Companies typically have inflated inventories
of configurations and specifications of parts and products.
They also carry stocks of long-lasting parts to mitigate
supply risks. Together, those lead to large inventories with
long tails of SKUs. The flexibility of 3-D printing means
that a design can change with little or no impact on
production costs. With that kind of on-demand capability,
3-D printing can reduce inventories, as physical parts are
kept digitally and made only when needed.
Logistics. Because 3-D printers can be placed close to, or
even on, an end user’s premises, a supply chain becomes
shorter, cheaper and more responsive, requiring fewer
people to manage and creating a lower environmental
footprint. This flexibility creates more collaborative
relationships among suppliers, manufacturers and
customers. Moreover, the capability for more localized
manufacturing also results in lower transborder costs
and decreased transit time: Instead of items going across
international borders, design data is sent to local 3-D
Although there are still issues to adopting 3-D printing,
they are being resolved, opening it to wider use.
First, industrial 3-D printers have been expensive.
However, using 3-D printing services can provide the
capability without buying expensive printers. Materials
also are expensive: Metal powders for 3-D printing can
cost more than twice as much as metal for traditional
manufacturing. These materials, though, are lowering in
cost. Moreover, because 3-D printing uses only materials
needed for the finished item, there is little waste —
meaning it can be more economical when viewed in the
context of the end-to-end process.
Second, moving to a digital operating
model requires several changes.
For instance, moving 3-D printing
closer to the end user to reduce
delivery time also means that data
and digital management are vital.
Designs need to be protected via
commercial agreements to mitigate
counterfeiting and ensure compliance
with regulations, from health and
safety to airworthiness. Pricing models,
intellectual-property law and legislation
also need to adapt.
INTEGRATING 3;D PRINTING
Supply management professionals
not already using 3-D printing should
evaluate how they can incorporate it
into their organizations by:
• Investigating where opportunities are
• Working with manufacturing to analyze inventory, bills
of materials and sources of components
• Understanding the cost of storing an item throughout
its life, the lead time to obtain it, and time and cost to
This analysis, which should be baselined against the
current paradigm, should also consider the competitive
advantage of locating manufacturing closer to end users
and reducing international logistics costs and times.
3-D printing o;ers solutions to supply management issues
that range from reducing delivery time to minimizing cost.
Given the pace of technological development, it is not a
case of if 3-D printing will become an integral part of how
companies make things and a competitive di;erentiator,
but when. ISM
Len Pannett is a management consultant at Visagio in London.
USING 3;D PRINTING
HOW THEY CAN
IT INTO THEIR