In April, I went to the Inside 3D Printing Conference & Expo at the Javits Center in New York. There were many interesting novelty items on display, from cars with 3D-printed metal bodies to a whole slew of action and fantasy figures. While these things showed how the technology opens up a lot of fun possibilities and a new medium for artists, very little showed a truly practical use.
Click on the image below to see a brief slideshow of the 3D printing applications on display at the conference:
In reality, though, 3D printing has great practical potential for the supply chain, as shown by the US army. Jerry Castanos saw its military application on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. That inspired him to open his own 3D printing business in New York City, 3D Heights, which offers 3D printers, related accessories, and lessons in using them. His goal is to be “the first” successful 3D printing retail store in the city. I spoke to about the confluence of his army experience with supply chain management and the uses for 3D printing.
Before founding 3D Heights, Castanos spent 11 years in supply chain management, dealing with global logistics. He said that one of the biggest challenges in that role was “obtaining the right piece of equipment in a timely fashion.” The possibility of 3D printing the part required solves the problem of delays on orders. That technological solution was adopted by the army, which set up special units for prototyping and fabricating parts needed on the spot.
Gizmodo described the high-tech packed into 20-foot container office spaces in a 2012 article titled “The Army’s New Mobile Fab Lab Is a Front Line MacGyver Factory.” The Rapid Equipping Force, an organization the army established in back in 2002, deployed these mobile units “to provide immediate technological solutions” required by the army. Having a 3D printer on hand meant the army could get key parts right away and not have to wait for orders to pass through various layers of authority before making their way to where they were needed. Cutting out the delays assured the army it would not have to do without what the situation required.
Castanos predicts that 3D printers will be in 90 percent of small businesses in the future. Entrepreneurs will take on the role of producers for items their businesses require on demand. That capability is transformative. In his words, “It changes the whole supply chain.” Before the possibility of 3D printing, business owners had to rely on a larger company for their required parts. That meant that they had to dedicate capital to inventory, and if they overestimated their needs, they could find themselves stuck with that inventory. The fact that 3D printing eliminates intermediaries between design and manufacture gives companies a lot more flexibility and control over inventory, making it possible to make just what they need when they need it. The technology extends the convenience of on-demand printing from paper to the 3D world.
The 3D printer can give a foundation to a startup company that is comparable to what a website presence does for an Internet company, according to Castanos. Entrepreneurs can use 3D printing to grow their new or established businesses. Printing in three dimensions is “a great asset” for representing things in a physical world in real-life interactions. For those in business, 3D-printed objects make it possible to extend the range of customized marketing materials and to produce prototypes of their ideas to demonstrate them at investor meetings. Objects that can not only be seen but touched and examined on all sides can have far more impact than flat illustrations on paper or on a screen.
Business owners are not the only ones who benefit from the technology, which also expands the possibilities for art, education, and even healthcare. Castanos says that some people do come in for art objects, getting 3D-printed sculptures of themselves from 3D scans. But he also serves students who come to his store to 3D print out objects for class projects. And there are doctors who order 3D medical models. He sees the technology having transformative effects, particularly as the range of materials extends from the standard plastic filament to flexible plastics, filament that resembles wood, and fiberglass.
Castanos's optimism about 3D printing's future corresponds to a view advanced by IBM. “The first and most important revolution” in the supply chain, according to a recent IBM report, “is 3D printing.” Though the current cost of 3D printed objects runs significantly higher than comparable items that achieve economies of scale through mass production, the report predicts that we will see a price drop of 92 percent within the decade, which will bring the cost on par with average manufacturing runs.
Those who think 3D printing is just a fun outlet for geeks, which won't go mainstream, would be wise to remember that many said the same thing about the new-fangled thing called the Internet in the late 20th century.
Let us know in the comments section below where you think the best applications for 3D printing will arise in the electronics supply chain.