How 3D printing can affect your supply chain

From where you order or manufacture your parts, to how they're batched and priced, additive manufacturing is going to have an impact

SCM 3D printing
Peter Sayer/IDG

3D printing has been used for prototyping for decades, but now it’s starting to creep into production process too. Even if you’re not printing things yourself, that change is going to have implications for your supply chain management.

What’s different about 3D printing and other additive manufacturing processes

When you think about 3D printing, you might visualize a filament of molten plastic being squirted, toothpaste-like, out of a nozzle, building up an object layer by layer as it solidifies.

Technically, that approach is termed fused deposition modeling but more generally we might talk of additive manufacturing, in which the layers can also be built up by fusing powdered metal or plastic (selective laser sintering) or solidifying a liquid using ultraviolet light (stereolithography or continuous liquid interface production), then lifting the finished object out of the unused powder or liquid.

Although these techniques are radically different from one another in approach, and in the characteristics of the pieces they can produce, they share a number of important characteristics that sets them apart from traditional manufacturing techniques:

  • Tooling is not specific to the piece being manufactured: In theory, they could be making a part for an aircraft one minute, and for a food mixer the next. Changing from one to the other doesn’t require a fresh mold, or a different cutting tool, just an appropriate design file.
  • They’re slow, because they work layer by layer.
  • They are free from many of the physical or topological constraints of other manufacturing techniques: If you can imagine it, there’s a fair chance you can print it.
  • They are usually costlier per piece compared to traditional mass-production techniques such as stamping or molding.

Those differences are going to have consequences for all stages of the product lifecycle, from design through to maintenance.

Effects on production lifecycle management

Design for additive manufacturing can be both simpler and more complex with than with traditional manufacturing techniques. Almost any solid or hollow shape can be produced without worrying about how it will be assembled, or whether the tool will fit inside it, and in some cases it’s possible to optimize parts to exactly the shape needed rather than simply what can be produced.

Prototyping is where 3D printing started to have an impact on industry, allowing design engineers with no machining skills to churn out prototypes in the same way marketing executives print brochures. There are service bureaus that will do the 3D printing for you but these days it’s just as easy (if not just as cheap) to do it in-house. From an IT point of view, the key issues with outsourcing involve ensuring the security and integrity of the design files transmitted.

Additive manufacturing changes the economic calculus of production: While in principle it’s slower and also costlier than, say, machining, that may change if the raw material is extremely expensive.

That’s something that’s come to the fore in the last five years or so, particularly with the use of sintered titanium in the aircraft industry, where additive manufacturing allows the creation of stronger pieces with less material and less waste, according to Sabrina Berbain, associate professor of supply chain at ISG International Business School, speaking at the Add Fab additive manufacturing conference in Paris recently.

At Sculpteo, a company that makes parts to order using a number of additive manufacturing techniques, falling costs have driven a shift in the use of its services from prototyping to production in recent years. Now 40 percent of Sculpteo’s customers use it to make production parts, the company’s deputy CEO Marine Coré Baillais said at the Add Fab event. They turn to additive manufacturing as soon as there’s a profit to be made, she said, either by reducing cost or the number of steps in the production process.

For prototyping, she said, turnaround time was the most important, while for production it’s all about cost and quality.

3D printing can continue to affect products long after they are sold, making it easier to obtain spare parts for maintenance and repair.

Two French brands, domestic appliance and cookware manufacturer SEB and appliance retailer Boulanger, have made moves towards on-demand printing of spare parts.

Boulanger is behind the site Happy3D.fr, which proposes a library of open-source design files for a variety of easily-broken and hard-to-obtain parts such as battery covers, handles, and nozzles. Breakage of these parts typically sends otherwise working products to the dump. SEB, meanwhile, is experimenting with the use of 3D printing to produce parts for a range of products it labels “Repairable product: 10 years” when its stocks of spares run out.

How this changes the supply chain

Logistics these days is increasingly about bits, not pieces, said another Add Fab speaker, Alexandre Donnadieu, who is French business development manager of 3YourMind, a German creator of industrial additive manufacturing management software.

For him there's no real distinction between the supply chain and production: You produce parts close to where you need them, and it’s the design and manufacturing data that you need to transport there. His company makes management tools for that kind of decentralized production.

That’s a path Sculpteo has gone down too: When it opened its third 3D printing facility, it did so in California, putting it close to the kinds of startups that were already using the first two in France. Thanks to its own software platform, Fabpilot, it can produce parts for as little as €1.50 each, according to Coré-Baillais.

Additive manufacturing’s ability to produce short runs of a part is changing logistics too.

Just-in-time inventory management has been around for a long while, but in many cases it’s just a matter of out of sight, out of mind: Custom-molded parts are still produced in huge batches, then stockpiled by a supplier and delivered to the customer piecemeal.

Coré-Baillais is seeing changes, though: More and more of Sculpteo’s customers are ordering small quantities of their designs several times a week, for use in medical equipment, robotics and other applications.

Over the course of a year, that can total tens of thousands of pieces — hardly the typical use case for 3D printing, you would think. It’s responding to the need of cash-strapped startups to put off big investments such as in tooling up for production for as long as possible. They might even stay with additive manufacturing because it allows continuous improvement of their product, she said.

So, while the deliveries still need to be made just in time, warehousing may no longer be an issue.

Something startups have understood, but that Coré-Baillais would like larger enterprises to understand, is that there's no point insisting on a two-month purchasing process for a piece that takes just 48 hours to make.

Finding ways to simplify the business processes between saving the design file and taking delivery of the printed part is key to this.

Additive manufacturing is shortening the supply chain, closing the gaps between sourcing, manufacturing and distribution, according to Berbain. In some cases, the customer is becoming a co-creator: With a batch size of one and less need for retooling, designs can be modified or customized almost on the fly, like a permanent beta test.

With 3D printing there’s less need for assembly, as more complex forms can be printed as a single piece. This means less coordination of suppliers of different subassemblies, and less likelihood that a whole manufacturing line will be stopped for lack of a tiny part, according to Donnadieu.

Obstacles to the adoption of additive manufacturing

We can’t just start 3D printing everything, though.

For one thing, we don’t have 3D design files for everything. Some inventory items will not yet have been digitized, Donnadieu said. But it would make sense to print even some of those, perhaps parts with a low rotation that are stocked for a long while, or parts that are no longer made. They will first have to be scanned or models recreated.

Distributed printing brings its own problems — not so much the cultural differences that can bog down business process outsourcing, but the heterogeneity of additive manufacturing equipment. There are no standard APIs, Donnadieu lamented.

There are also more material matters — matters like how long additive manufacturing materials will last, or whether parts produced this way meet various industry safety standards.

Having visibility into the cost of additive manufacturing from end to end is still an issue, he said. If you outsource: where should you do it?

Further into the future of supply chain management

So what’s next? Five years from now, Coré-Baillais expects Airbus to be printing spares for aircraft at airports around the world and repairing them on site although, she notes, there are still a lot of questions around how the design files can be transmitted securely and protected from interference during the printing process.

But she is more skeptical of whether this close-to-the-customer approach will work for consumer products, as SEB and Boulanger are hoping. The success of these initiatives is more likely to depend on civil society than on manufacturers and retailers, said Coré-Baillais: That’s the kind of fabrication that’s done not by manufacturers but by fab-labs and similar community ventures today.

At the launch of is “Repairable product” initiative SEB was said to be holding 5.7 million spare parts in stock. But the dream for a lot of businesses is zero inventory, said Berbain.

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