by David George, Engineering Supply Chain Director, HP Labs
Mr. George is an engineer and technologist with 30 years of experience across both R&D and supply chain in multiple product categories.
A century ago, the only way to hear Johannes Brahms’ “Wiegenlied”—colloquially known as “Lullaby”— was to receive an invitation to a performance.
Since then, we have moved from opera halls, to recordings, to broadcast radio, to personal devices and digital music services that deliver the music you want to hear, when and how you want to hear it. A violinist may download sheet music, reproduce the
melody, embellish to her taste, and publish or resell her recording.
Printing in 3D at scale and the changes in supply chain as 3D printing moves into production are now undergoing a metamorphosis analogous to the music industry after the invention of the phonograph. 3D printing at production scale promises the mass production,
distribution, and personalization of creative products, just like recorded music.
The Promise of 3D Printing
The last few years have seen exponential advances in the range of technologies, scale, and efficiency of 3D printing. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical need—and promise—of 3D printing at production scale, as it proved to be a
viable local manufacturing solution.
HP and its global community of digital manufacturing partners have produced more than 3.3 million 3D-printed parts to help healthcare workers on the front lines. The technology allowed the rapid design of crucial components transferred digitally and manufactured
locally for immediate production and delivery into the hands of medical staff.
As companies demand flexible, resilient supply chain models, this is one example of the opportunity to reshape the future of supply chains. The key to unlocking this future is scale, which, until recently, was not a component of any additive manufacturing
Impacts on Supply Chain
As 3D printing expands beyond prototyping and into production, supply chain professionals should anticipate profound impacts on the entire supply chain. 3D printing at scale may alter virtually every system dynamic: logistics, services, flows of materials,
the transmission of supply and demand signals, specifications, Standards, customs, security, intellectual property rights, laws and regulations, and sustainability.
Three pillars underpin the changes we can expect as 3D printing scales to production: postponement, radical customization, and a translation of physical products to digital embodiments. Each compounds and reinforces each other.
Postponement is the supply chain principle of delaying differentiation in material for as long as possible in the production cycle. Material that remains common to many purposes is more flexible and useful than material customized for a single purpose.
An item such as a common screw can be used anywhere; a subassembly may be usable in a range of products, but not all of them; and a final product will meet only its intended use.
Large manufacturers use postponement regularly. It is cheaper and easier to forecast, stock, and send a box of screws than to manage the right quantities of every product a factory may produce. Effective postponement increases supply chain efficiency,
reduces cost, and reduces waste. In other words, deliberate procrastination may be profitable.
But while postponement strategies usually happen in factories or warehouses, the basic raw materials for 3D printable parts may be positioned at or near the point of final customer delivery, formed on demand. As cost continues to decrease, this obsoletes
a hub model based on massive central warehouses of millions of products.
Traditionally, customization comes at a price. Volume discounts are a universal supply chain principle Manufacturing efficiency depends on eliminating variation and being able to offer your product, as Henry Ford famously said in 1909, “any colour
that he wants so long as it is black.”
Production-scale 3D printing abolishes that constraint. Customization of sub-groups, or even of every single item, carries zero additional production cost; 500 physically unique objects cost the same as 500 identical objects. There is design and setup
overhead, but once on the production floor the customer receives uniqueness free. A barrier today is that the baseline cost in 3D printing remains higher than other manufacturing techniques, but the gap is narrowing.
3D technology providers have roadmaps
for various characteristics that may soon be customizable. For simplicity, consider only the physical form for now.
With postponement, a contractor could order any part from a digital catalog on demand. Radical customization means the part does not even have to be in the catalog. A customer can bring in a USB drive with their part design or bring something similar
to what they want; it could be scanned with a 3D scanner and be modified digitally to suit the customer’s purpose. It effectively adds infinite additional products for variations of parts that it might not have been possible even to imagine,
much less to forecast, order, and stock traditionally. A 2030 Henry Ford mightsay, “give the customer a car in any color that he can imagine, because it doesn’t cost me a nickel more than black.”
This capability is a significant reason 3D printing is popular as a prototyping tool. Now we see it realized at production scale.
Physical to Digital
Gene Roddenberry envisioned in Star Trek a food “synthesizer” that could produce colored and flavored edible cubes on demand. This fictional contraption evolved, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation became a “replicator.”
3D printing is limited at present to a narrow range of materials. But the ability to describe physical characteristics in digital format, transmit the description over the internet, and realize an object in the physical world is closer to a replicator
than people may realize.
Physical objects ship as digital descriptions to the point of local realization, anywhere in the connected world, immediately and at virtually zero cost. And, in the end, they are made on demand, with customization or alteration as desired and permitted.
The Impending Proliferation
The great barrier to the realization of this ecosystem is the limited range of “things” that can be 3D printed at production scale. Under that crucial constraint, is this worth any professional’s time to consider? In the last year,
the additive manufacturing (AM) industry achieved nearly an order of magnitude increase in sophistication, speed, and scale across technologies.
More materials and capabilities are on the horizon, including metal. Opportunities for 3D printing at scale are feeding a strong positive feedback loop of materials, investment, and innovation.
Today, injection molding is the dominant approach to manufacturing in high volume. It likely will be for some time. But injection molding tooling is expensive. Additive manufacturing is an attractive new complement for manufacturers. It similarly delivers
new capabilities and forms not achievable by other means at any price. “Digital shipping” adds flexibility to build 100 units at 50 locations instead of molding 5,000 units on a toolset to ship around the globe, providing a dramatic
reduction of time, cost, and the carbon footprint of shipping.
More to Come
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is still in its infancy. One barrier to faster growth is the adoption of industry Standards, which are being developed. AM is an enabler of digital manufacturing, a cornerstone of digital transformation
and reduced time to market.
Supply chain is not simply the flow of material, but also the flow and management of information and cash. If we look again at the music industry, the phonograph eventually spawned unforeseen industries, including record companies, radio, and now streaming
services such as Pandora and Spotify. Similar unknowns lie ahead in the future of supply chain with the 3D printing and digital manufacturing revolution. ei