by Christoph Schell

3 ways printing innovation is reshaping global supply chains

Jun 27, 2018
3D PrintersSupply Chain Management SoftwareTechnology Industry

Cloud-based solutions, 3D printing technology, and new printing materials and methods are shortening supply chains and creating greater consumer customization anytime on anything.

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Credit: Thinkstock

In today’s digital era, business leaders can manage, customize, automate and connect various steps of their printing processes in ways they couldn’t imagine a few years ago. Whether it was textiles, publishing or graphic design, traditional printing methods invariably involved multiple steps, companies and individuals to get a single job done. This made it not only time consuming to do anything more than a simple, large batch run, but costly as well.

Today, however, with advances in digitally-connected printing technology, it’s possible to produce just about any size job, and customize, complete and deliver it in hours rather than weeks or months.

There are numerous ways in which printing innovation is already reshaping global supply chains. Here are three specific examples of how this is taking place:

1. Shipping printed materials “direct-to-consumer”

Think about how published materials were once produced and distributed. Images would be teed-up for a printer to produce books and magazines using very specific tooling or machinery. Words would land on paper, the items would be bound, wrapped, bundled and then shipped across vast distances to warehouses, where they would sit until shipped out once again to bookstores, newsstands or customer mailboxes. The steps involved were too many to count and the associated costs of the published materials typically meant tight margins, which left authors, agents and publishers with fractions of pennies for every $15 or $20 book sold.

In the digital printing age, however, transformation is under way. Cloud-based publishing services make it possible for publishers to build a virtual warehouse for the management, automation, distribution, print and direct fulfillment of book orders, allowing consumers to order books and have them shipped directly to their doorsteps with a simple click. (Disclosure: I am employed by HP, Inc.)

Cloud-based publishing is just the latest example of how digital printing technology is reshaping global supply chains in ways that promise to speed product delivery, lighten or eventually eliminate the need for massive warehouses and allow for much greater product customization than at any point in history.

Customer satisfaction could reach new heights with orders arriving almost in real-time. As Stephen Jones, director of global direct procurement for Pearson, explains: “We are moving from a ‘print-to-warehouse’ to a ‘print-to-order, direct-to-consumer’ model.”

2. Producing items “anytime anywhere” with 3D printing

When we think about how printing technology might influence global supply chains, perhaps there is no greater potential impact than 3D printing. 3D printers allow manufacturers in any industry to beam designs for prototypes, spare parts and customized products – anytime and anywhere in the world – and “print” them out closer to consumers, thus shrinking the supply chain and substantially reducing the shipping-related impact on the environment.

For instance, a report by the World Economic Forum suggests that 3D printing could reduce manufacturing costs by $170 billion and reduce CO2 emissions by up to 525.5 metric tons by 2025. And these estimates are modest, given the infancy of the market.

But the 3D print market is quickly gaining steam. Since the introduction of the Fourth Industrial Manufacturing Revolution at the World Economic Forum two years ago, the world has moved ever-closer to a seismic shift that promises to fundamentally change every aspect of human society and the global economy.

Traditionally used for prototyping, 3D technology has been around for decades. But in the last few years, newer systems have been introduced that can produce superior, functional parts up to 10 times faster and at half the cost of earlier 3D printers.  As a result, more manufacturers are making the move to digital manufacturing via 3D printers. A recent study by A.T. Kearney and HP predicts 3D printing will disrupt up to $6 trillion of the global economy in the next 5 to 10 years.

3. Expanding print to any material

Digital technology is also making it possible to expand printing to other materials and applications. According to a recent analyst report, the digital textile printing market is expected to reach $2.31 billion by 2023. This growth is being driven in part by demand for digital textile printing in the garment and advertising industries. 

It is now possible to use Latex Printers to print directly onto a wide variety of textiles, opening a world of possibilities for customized, direct-to-designer garments, soft signage and décor applications. The technology can speed time-to-market for something as simple as a poster or banner, but it is just as applicable to more complex projects, such as backlit and front-lit banners, block-outs, backdrops, point-of-purchase displays or even home curtains, blinds, cushions, pillows and lampshades.

Regardless of the industry, digital printing technology is poised to fundamentally change how we conceive, design, produce, distribute and consume nearly everything. There is a digital industrial revolution under way, and it’s clear that as production moves closer to customers, supply chains will continue to transform with the newfound ability to custom-produce anything, anytime and anywhere.