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Stocking the Digital Warehouse with Additive Manufacturing

We’ve all heard about the transformational impact that 3D printing will have on product design and development.  Previously impossible designs are now possible with 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing or AM).  For example, the technology extremely complex internal channels that are impossible to create with traditional manufacturing possible by literally “growing” a part layer by layer.

Additive manufacturing is also transforming product development.  Timelines once measured in years are routinely being condensed down to months and even weeks.  Parts that would have taken six months (or more) to produce via traditional manufacturing techniques like metal injection molding (MIM) are now taking six days or less with additive manufacturing.  In today’s fast-paced, hyper competitive world, fast innovation and product development are key sustainable competitive advantages.

The force multiplier behind all of this is the maturation of metal 3D Printing processes to the point that production volumes are now possible.

Image courtesy: 3DEO

Image courtesy: 3DEO

However, this article isn’t going to re-hash these widely recognized benefits of AM.  Instead, we’re going to look at the dramatic impact 3D printing will have on the supply chain.  In a world of on-demand manufacturing and just-in-time manufacturing, the very concept of inventory is being completely rethought.  Despite accountants listing this as an asset on the balance sheet, supply chain managers have always known this intuitively to be a liability.

Rather than being a physical item stored in a specific location somewhere in the world, inventory is already making the transformation from the physical world to the digital world.  Warehouses of the future won’t be physical entities. Rather, they’ll be digital “blueprints” stored in databases that can be manufactured exactly when they’re needed. 

To modify a sentiment from Shakespeare, “This is the stuff lean manufacturing dreams are made of.” More than being manufactured on demand only when components are required, they can also be manufactured where they are needed.  In the digital world, instant global access means blueprints can be transferred around the world instantly for hyper-local.

The lynchpin to the digital warehouse, of course, is 3D printing. Every other manufacturing technology ever conceived of by humanity requires extensive prep work before manufacturing can begin.  Tooling needs to be built, computer numerical control (CNC) machines need to be programmed, or setups need to be established.

For the first time, additive manufacturing is a completely flexible manufacturing technology that only requires the operator to load a file and hit the “go” button.  Heck, even the file loading part of the process can easily be automated.  Despite persistent metal 3D printing misconceptions, once the blueprint has been established it is trivial to manufacture compared to traditional manufacturing.  For example, we are developing a fully automated production process that will require zero input from a human operator. The future is coming at us faster than we can recognize.

So where does that leave the old-school warehouse?  In the coming decades, warehouses filled with physical inventory sitting on shelves waiting for a job will be as relevant as mainframe computers are today.

In summary, the digital warehouse is not a warehouse at all – it’s a database of digital blueprints that can be used to manufacture components precisely where and when they are needed.  To paraphrase the late, great Steve Jobs: “This changes everything.”

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