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Can 3D Printing be Additive to the Supply Chain?

Kevin Capodice | 14 February 2017

From prosthesis, to robotics, food, and even guns, 3D printing has been making headlines in recent years. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around longer than most think. Similar to the dawn of the home computer, 3D printers started out very expensive, oversized, and used commercially. The shift in recent years lays within the consumer market of 3D printers. With intermediate computer skills, anybody with ~$500 can purchase a printer and begin converting digital files into a physical object right before their own eyes. So now we pose the question, how does this disruptive technology apply to the supply chain today? How can we come together to optimize the entire process of consumer goods from manufacturing to delivery? How can we drive a new way of thinking with 3D printing? Source: Niryo

How Does 3D Printing Work?

“Additive Manufacturing is an appropriate name to describe the technologies that build 3D objects by adding layer-upon-layer of material, whether the material is plastic, metal, concrete or one day…..human tissue.” Source: "AM Basics | Additive Manufacturing (AM)." Additive Manufacturing AM. Consumer 3D printers are actually simplistic in regards to hardware. While this may vary by manufacturer, printers use a string of plastic through a hot extruder (imagine a hot glue gun). Movement of the extruder is controlled by three small electronic motors for the X, Y, and Z axis. The extruder moves side to side and front to back while the build plate moves up and down to lay down the string of plastic. Layer by layer, the heated plastic is applied and then cooled down to harden instantly. The key to achieving the perfect print hides within the software.  A normal 3D file can be made in almost any CAD program. Once that file is created with the right proportions then it is processed through a slicer. It’s called a slicer because the program turns a solid 3D model into hundreds of thousands of micro layers. This program is designed to convert the digital file into a code the printer can translate into coordinates – called G-Code.  Each coordinate or point the extruder moves to within the printer is generated by the slicer.

The Community of Open Source

My favorite aspect of 3D printing is the community. It is based on the idea of a shared online community creating, modifying, sharing, and printing objects. The idea of open source is just as revolutionary as the physical printer. Open source is defined as denoting software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. This shared community continues to push the movement forward to benefit everyone. Getting this technology into the hands of hobbyists, makers, tinkers, inventors, craftsmen, etc. will exponentially increase the rate of innovation. Thingiverse is a popular 3D printing website. Think of this as an online catalog. Anyone can go on this website, search for what item they want, download the files (for free), and print the object. Now let’s say you downloaded a mount for a GoPro, and the bracket is just slightly too small for your handlebars. You can use the free file as a template and modify the 3D model to better fit your application. Source: Thingiverse 

Supply Chain Application #1 - Rapid Prototyping

Designing a new product or a part requires a ton of R&D as well as a number of “trial and error” prototypes. What if we can simplify this process? Instead of milling multiple parts of aluminum or testing a number of plastic injection moldings, inventors can now have a proportional physical prototype they can measure and test within hours, not days.  Lowering the number of steps in production can equal faster launch to market, more efficient manufacturing, and cheaper products to the end consumer.

Supply Chain Application #2 - Reduction in Materials

CAD programs used today have an extensive set of tools used to engineer parts digitally. Programs such as Solidworks and Autodesk Fusion 360 can perform stress tests, heat mapping, and create more organic parts. This will greatly reduce the amount of raw material which in return save costs which can reduce the average retail cost of goods. The amount of weight lost will also equal lower shipping costs by increasing the efficiency of delivery vehicles that can now travel with less weight whether that is by truck, airplane, or boat.
"With 3D printing, the team was able to transform a bracket made up of four main parts and 44 rivets into a single, laser-melted piece that is 40% stiffer and 35% lighter than its predecessor." Source: Airbus

Supply Chain Application #3 - Spare Parts

Most distribution centers have multi-million dollar automated systems featuring miles of conveyor and advanced goods-to-person systems. Just like your car, these systems include millions of small parts that are prone to normal wear and tear. The best method is to properly plan preventative packages but that includes even more inventory that may or may not ever leave the box. What if we can eliminate the spare parts inventory and replace it when a 3D printer.  Printing the majority of small parts on-demand can avoid waiting days, weeks, even months, to fix your automated system.

The Downsides

With every new technology there is always the Achilles’s heel. With 3D printing, currently there are two main downfalls holding the industry back:
  • Time
3D printing takes forever (right now). Small objects can take as long as 1-8 hours, while larger objects can take as long as 24 hours. Time has been reduced drastically by introducing resin printers which use light to form objects from a pool of resin. Overall time of printing is the main reason why the printer is not an everyday household object.
  • Limited Materials
Right now consumer printing is limited to a very select number of materials. Plastics such as ABS and PLA are the cheapest and most available. Metal, nylon, magnets, etc. have been in development, but it will take years for more materials to reach the consumer market.

Out of this world concept | Manufacturing and Distribution:  One and the Same

What if the manufacturing facility was also the distribution center? What if the distribution center no longer had physical inventory? Ponder a facility that only held a 100% digital inventory of files and an arsenal of 3D printers. Customers can search for the item they want, modify the file if needed, order the product online, have it manufactured in real time, and shipped directly. The possibilities can be endless. The customer can now have an inexpensive, custom tailored, and quick solution to the items they want, compared to what was once mass manufactured.


While there are pros and cons of 3D printing, I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg for additive manufacturing and the supply chain. We will meet full actualization when we can have devices that can virtually print out a fully functional object using a variety of materials in real-time. This is just the beginning. What do think you think of 3D printing? Is it the way of the future or another technological hype?

Author: Kevin Capodice


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