Additive Manufacturing: Increasing Supply Chain Versatility and Resilience

Additive Manufacturing: Increasing Supply Chain Versatility and Resilience

Additive manufacturing, the commercial use of 3D printing, is the process of building a component by depositing material in layers from digital 3D design data. While 3D printing is not a new technology, it is only now with recent technological advances that this technology has become versatile enough to use commercially.

The Evolution of Additive Manufacturing

Previously used for creating one-off prototypes, this technology is now proving its worth in supply chains everywhere. 3D printing's first uses were in producing prototypes as a cost-effective option for businesses. Prototypes can be astronomically expensive to develop, and additive manufacturing can greatly reduce the iteration expenses.

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As a result of accelerating technological advances, 3D printing has graduated from solely producing prototypes. Now, the technology can effectively be used to create finished goods which are durable and safe to sell to customers and companies alike in large to medium quantities. According to Terry Wohlers, a researcher specializing in the field, 28% of money is spent on printing components for final products. He predicts this number to rise steadily to 80% by 2020, meaning the use of 3D printing will grow exponentially. One reason it will become so popular is because 3D printing can use numerous materials to produce finished goods and individual components. Products can be made from several varying materials including ceramics, cement, glass, numerous metals, thermoplastic composites, and metal alloys.

The Benefits Additive Manufacturing Presents to Supply Chains

This versatile technology is highly beneficial to supply chains and their everyday operations. One benefit of additive manufacturing goods and their individual components is their light weight consistency. Because the item is created by layers, only enough material is used to make the product whole, which helps a company become more environmentally friendly. Brackets and flanges are used in traditional factory environments so objects can be handled by machines. The traditional method of adding more material to the finished item makes it heavier than it needs to be. A 3D printer, on the other hand, can generate an object as a complete whole that requires no assembly at all. As a result, companies can experience huge savings in material costs and eliminate assembly steps. By not having extra joints, goods also become more durable and high quality, which make them more attractive to consumers and companies than other competitive products.

Another benefit of 3D printing is the flexibility and customization options it presents. When designing prototypes it is not uncommon for a product to sustain multiple changes which can, at times, take weeks to reflect. With 3D printing changes can be made, the object can be recreated within hours, and the prototype can be swiftly approved. Because each unit is made individually with one 3D printer, an object can be easily modified to reflect changing tastes and unique needs. What makes this technology more valuable to supply chains is that it can be used on a higher scale to create an endless combination of various shapes, sizes, and colors for buyers to choose from. As orders reach a mass-production threshold, the customization of products adds little to the manufacturer's final costs. Although the direct costs of using this new method to create goods are usually higher, the flexibility of the technology drastically reduces total expenses.

Looking Forward to 3D Printing  

Several companies have successfully integrated additive manufacturing into their supply chains within a relatively short time frame to increase production. The U.S hearing aid industry, for example, successfully converted to 100% additive manufacturing in less than 500 days. Companies that remained with the traditional production method closed their doors. Other industries are taking note and are investing in this technology. Industries such as medicine, defense, aerospace, dentistry, and electronics see firsthand the benefits additive manufacturing bring to their supply chain.

As this technology continues to develop and advance, it will bring with it more unique opportunities to produce high quality, customized goods at low costs. No longer limited to prototypes, additive manufacturing has finally grown out of its niche and is now a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing processes.

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