As additive manufacturing technology, or 3D printing, becomes more ubiquitous, analysts have declared it a manufacturing revolution, a logistics dream, and an environmental hero. But how will this new process change product supply chains?
The MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL) speculates that this innovation may resemble a revolution, but is no overthrow of the entire supply chain. It’s certainly a disruptive technology, but it presents just as many opportunities as it replaces in the supply chain sphere.
First of all, how does 3D printing work? MIT CTL describes the process:
A computer-controlled laser melts materials such as plastic or a mixture of alloys according to a blueprint that is programmed into the machine. An object is made by building up ultra-thin layers of the material one by one. The technology reduces waste to a minimum because material is added (hence the term “additive”) in the precise quantities needed to make an item. Also, additive manufacturing is incredibly flexible both in terms of the types of objects that can be manufactured and where the process takes place.
The flexibility offered by 3D printing will render some supply chains obsolete, like in auto repair shops and retail outlets, where printers would make certain auto components on site and avoid rushed, costly transportation.
However, this versatility will open doors as well. 3D printing will make it much easier to tailor products to customer needs, allowing manufacturers to tweak a blueprint and produce a limitless number of design variations. The likely increase in the number of SKUs will add complexity and cost to supply chains. Since the compact 3D printers are small enough to be located closer to consumers, shorter lead times and smaller inventories will also make it easier to improve service levels.
Of course, 3D printing is only in an early stage of the technology’s evolution. Imagine the possibilities ten years from now: distribution centers filled with printers and raw material, or whole supply chains dedicated to the plastic and metal alloys needed for printing. How do you predict the industry will react?
To read the full analysis by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, click here.