By now, we all know that the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for the global supply chain crisis. But there were underlying issues just waiting to be revealed in terms of production, transportation, labor, and visibility weaknesses.
If you’re a manufacturer or even a warehouse that relies on certain equipment, the scarcity of parts is still a major concern. Some businesses are still scrambling to find new suppliers while frustrating customers at the same time. But there are several examples of companies using 3D printing to overcome various supply chain challenges. Here’s what you need to know.
What is 3D Printing?
Also referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process that uses three-dimensional digital models to produce physical objects by adding multiple thin layers of material in succession. The precision and efficiency of 3D printing virtually eliminate waste, thereby reducing costs.
This is much different from subtractive production methods, which begin with a block of raw material and remove the parts that aren’t required. This can result in up to 90% of the material ending up as waste.
While 3D printing isn’t new technology (it’s been around for about 30 years), it hasn’t yet entered mainstream manufacturing due to issues related to speed, durability, and the protection of intellectual property. However, various advancements in these areas are allowing manufacturers to use this technology to address ongoing supply chain disruptions.
How 3D Printing Can Help Address Supply Chain Troubles
Many businesses have only viewed 3D printing as something that is useful for prototyping. To be sure, the technology excels in this area. But recent adopters of 3D printing have realized that it is also a practical solution to many supply chain troubles.
The technology soared in popularity during the pandemic when it was used to quickly produce ventilator parts and PPE. Here are a few of the ways 3D printing is helping impact the supply chain and even giving businesses a competitive advantage.
1. Decentrailized Production
In the past, mass production of goods has been centralized in certain countries and regions due to lower costs. But this model adds complexity to the process due to imports, labor issues, geopolitical tensions, and the time required to make any changes. Because 3D printing is considered portable technology, manufacturers can relocate production and assembly closer to where products will be consumed.
2. Simple Produce Customization
When a manufacturing client wants an order produced to their exact specifications, this would be challenging using traditional methods. But 3D printing allows manufacturers to create customized parts as well as quickly adapt to changing market conditions. Otherwise, it could take weeks or months to achieve the same result that 3D printing could provide in only hours or days.
3. Faster Time to Market
When you’re relying on outside business partners, time to market is often a moving target. This can be frustrating for businesses and the customers they serve. 3D printing technology reduces this complexity by bringing everything in-house. You control the timeline, which can save you money on production costs and help improve the customer experience.
4. Better Use of Resources
If you are 3D printing products or parts in-house, your business can take a more “on-demand” approach to inventory. Instead of having to devote various resources (money, time, warehouse space, etc.) to creating excess stock, 3D printing makes “Just-in-Time” possible once again.
5. More Sustainable Choice
Perhaps one of the unintended benefits of relying more on 3D printing is that your business is making more sustainable choices. It is producing less waste and using a more energy-efficient option to create products or parts.
Examples of 3D Printing in Action
3D printing might just seem like an interesting idea or something businesses will adopt in the future. But the fact is that it’s a solution that’s already making a difference in many different industries. Here are some examples of 3D printing in action that your business can emulate:
A large number of automotive companies are already using 3D printing to produce prototypes. For example, Ford has been using this technology since the 1980s. The company reports that traditional prototyping methods would cost roughly $500,000 and take four months. But 3D printing can complete the same process for $3,000 in just four days. Automakers are also using 3D printing to create certain parts and produce hard-to-find parts for production machinery.
Additive manufacturing technology is being used in the medical field to produce items like knee and hip implants, personalized prosthetics, hearing aids, and orthotic insoles for shoes.
3D-printed parts are already being used for non-critical components on some aircraft. For example, GE has put more than 300 3D printers in service in its facilities with plans to produce about 100,000 additive parts. Also, the U.S. Air Force has saved tens of thousands by installing various 3D-printed parts on its C5 Super Galaxy.
3D printers are also being used in the construction industry to create more cost-effective projects that produce less waste. This technology can produce construction components like trusses, windows, and doors. It can even print entire walls or structures.
Oil and Gas
Although the oil and gas industry is known for following traditional methods, 3D printing is allowing many organizations to innovate to achieve greater efficiencies and cost savings. For example, 3D printers can quickly produce parts that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain due to supply chain issues.
3D printing is a disruptive technology that will have far-reaching impacts on many industries. As businesses continue to struggle with supply chain issues, these solutions are proving beneficial to revolutionize various manufacturing processes and help drive innovation.