The way we do things in many industries is changing now perhaps more rapidly than ever before. Modern technologies are growing and evolving at exponential rates, carving new paths for start‑ups and disrupting blue chips. Technologies such as robotics, automation, drones, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing continue to reshape both company operations and customer expectations. Now more than ever, organizations must innovate within their supply chains to remain competitive in a changing marketplace. This article outlines where 3D printing is in 2016, and how and why it should be implemented into the modern supply chain in order to develop and sustain competitive advantage.
Where is 3D printing today?
We are at the cusp of a 3D printing revolution. Revenue in the 3D-printing marketplace has averaged 26.2% annual growth over the past 27 years, bringing the total market size to $5.2 billion in 2015, according to the Wohler's Report 2016. Recent industrial, commercial, and consumer interest has surged, and the capabilities of the technology have grown to a point where 3D printing can be implemented within supply chains in a valuable way.
3D printing is a process by which a three-dimensional component is 'printed' from its raw materials, layer-by-layer. The technology has evolved significantly in recent years enabling printing of various alloys, metals and plastics using a variety of processes—including multi-material printing. Consumer-grade Fused Deposition Modelling printers offer a low-cost at-home plastics printing option. Enterprise systems can create stronger and more precise models utilising photopolymers and industrial systems are capable of printing metals using a near-melting process, offering the ability to fabricate high-strength components and expand beyond prototyping to true manufacturing.
The promise of 3D printers copying-and-printing physical objects is not as farfetched as it might seem; 3D scanning has been integrated with 3D printing to effectively "copy-and-print" objects as required (see Officeworks's Mini Me service). Being able to copy-and-print parts without the need for CAD expertise creates tremendous value, particularly in supply chains with low-volume sporadic demand profiles. The ability to print key components as and when they are required provides a viable alternative to conventional procurement of items, which may no longer be produced, or require extensive cost and time to acquire. Stratasys's Connex3 printer offers commercial multi-material printing with up to three different plastic materials. MIT's $7,000 MultiFab 3D printer and scanner highlights the future trend of multi-material 3D printing, capable of printing with up to 10 materials simultaneously and producing a wide array of products including LED lenses, plastic handled blades and phone cases which print around phones.
3D printed products are now a viable alternative to many traditionally manufactured parts, as the strength and precision capabilities of 3D printers has vastly improved. These advances generated commercial and government interest in the technology. The U.S. military has reported widespread use of 3D printing across a number of applications, with operational components in-use today. GE has also invested heavily in the technology, leading to the first 3D-printed aircraft components being certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in 2015. The technology is proliferating within a variety of industries including automotive, consumer goods, dental and electronics by the likes of BMW, Google and HP.