Additive 3D Printing Creates Another Supply Chain Tier

Improved materials with be where the innovation is in the coming years, disrupting the current paradigms of parts replacement and storage. Not surprisingly, 3D printing got a lot of attention at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but it’s also poised to fundamentally change the behavior of supply chains.

Just as consumers are now able to more easily tap into 3D printing, 3Diligent set out to make the technology readily available globally for businesses, and last month, it announced that addition of a new process for metal parts. In a telephone interview with EBN Online, company CEO Cullen Hilkene said that the company is now able to offer the broadest range of popular metal rapid manufacturing options.

The latest offerings come at a time when the metal 3D printing market is booming, he said, citing GE’s purchase of printer manufacturers Arcam and Concept Laser GmbH. 3Diligent’s new capabilities enable it to offer metal plating of resin and plastic parts in addition to metal casting of wax-printed parts, complementing its other metal printing and machining options, such as Laser Melting, Electron Beam Melting and Binder Jetting with Metal Infiltration.  

Metal plating of 3D-printed parts enables designers to get many of the same benefits of metal printing, but without the same price tag, Hilkene said. Through metal plating, parts are given a metallic appearance and additional durability, he said, and wax print to cast metal technology provides customers a means to access metals that aren’t readily printed any other way. This process can be utilized for casting of precious metals or industrial alloys that aren’t readily offered in the powder form required for other types of metal 3D printing.

Hilkene sees these expanding 3D printing capabilities as having a “profound impact” on supply chains. The underlying concept of 3Diligent is it has networked contract manufacturers that specialize in digital manufacturing across North America with an emphasis on 3D printing. “Creating a single service in the spirit of Uber is what is needed right now,” he said. “The practical reality of stocking everything, regardless of the size of the company, is not realistic.”

Companies can submit a request for quote and access all technologies and materials that are out there, faster and more affordably across a network of qualified partners, said Hilkene. The best option could be on the other side of the country or around the corner. “Companies are going to want to be able to dynamically access capacity,” he added.

One of the impacts to the supply chain is that conventional economies of scale get turned on their head a bit, he said. The assumption is that it might be a fit for a large multinational. “Being a big company doesn't necessarily mean you have cost effective approach,” Hilkene said larger companies might be saddled with older, even obsolete machines when it’s critical to be able customize designs on the fly in response to customer needs. “Things are moving so much faster,” said. “Being nimble is a big deal.”

Jon Harrop, director at market research firm IDTechEx, in Cambridge, UK, said consumer-level 3D printing has pushed the technology into the limelight even though that’s not the largest market, but it’s generated interest from other angles. “There are lots of different facets to it.”

Old school 3D printing is essentially additive manufacturing, and plating with metals is one those interesting facets. “The ability to combine conductive and insulative materials into the same object is compelling.” Additive technology is well-suited for repair, so a high-value metal industrial part that’s broken or worn away can be easily repaired by putting it in printer and adding materials, Harrop said.

Historically, big industrial manufacturing only used 3D printing for prototyping, but now it can be used for final production parts in sectors such as aerospace, said Harrop. “They can be mission critical,” he said.  The major advantage is efficiency, he said, but there also lighter and fewer materials involved. “You can have thin fibre-like metal holding things together that are strong enough,” he said, noting that 3Diligent is focused on reliability.

Materials for 3D printing have been improving, said Harrop. “The materials have been a real issue.” Acrylic, for example, was commonly used but it’s “rubbish material from engineering perspective. The materials side of 3D printing is evolving the fastest.”

Another impact for the supply chain is the ability to manufacture parts in remote locations. Even astronauts on the International Space Station were able to replace equipment on their own. “That's a really extreme example of a disruption to a supply chain.” Back on Earth, that concept can be applied within companies at remote office or an oil rig, for example.  “It’s almost like a new tier in the supply chain.”

Let us know how you think this might change your business in the comments section below. 

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