How 3D Printing Might Impact Supply Chains

Graham Bredemeyer- President at Collider Inc

Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing has managed to grasp the imagination of the media and the technology world at large over the past several years. First, it was the idea of a replicator type device showing up in every home, with the ability to print any product you might want on demand. The world has since caught on that the technology simply isn’t advanced enough for this future.

According to the Gartner Hype cycle, consumer 3D printing is currently past the peak of inflated expectations as the public begins to understand the shortcomings of the technology. The same hype cycle, however, also estimates industrial 3D printing is heading towards “the slope of enlightenment” as companies that have invested heavily in the technology over the past decade begin to see the payoff of their long term investments in additive manufacturing and publish their impressive results.

We now see headlines that, instead of promising 3D printers in every home, are reporting on 3D printed parts being in every engine GE Aviation ships with their new 3D printed fuel nozzles, or on the fact that AirBus plans to be printing over 18 tons of plane parts a year soon, or 3D printed anatomy is making its way into human bodies. All of these uses of industrial 3D printers have one thing in common — they’re 3D printers being used to make end products. While traditionally the way 3D printing has impacted supply chains is by being a tool that supports other manufacturing processes, we are beginning to see a pattern of 3D printing impacting the supply chain through the direct production of end use parts. While companies like GE Aviation have invested well over a decade bringing their projects to fruition, their work has paved the way for other companies to begin leveraging this technology for end parts. These projects now take less time than ever to develop and enact.

With major developments in the 3D printing industry happening constantly, the tools to enable a wider array of applications means more uses of industrial 3D printing technology for end parts are popping up every day. Two years ago, when I was consulting in the industry, nearly all the work I would do with implementing 3D printing into pre-existing manufacturing was around leveraging the technology to support other processes. Today, as I talk to potential customers about a new 3D printing technology my company has developed, over half the conversations we have with companies are about using the technology for the printing of end parts. While 3D printing won’t be replacing mass production tools any time soon, the industry is headed down an interesting path where new industrial 3D printing processes can be dropped in place of traditional manufacturing methods for certain volumes, materials, etc. And these innovations are being announced on a near quarterly basis. The future of 3D printing impacting your supply chain might be as a tool to support your traditional manufacturing processes, but it might also become the end part manufacturing tool for some of the parts you make. Either way, if you’re making physical goods, the odds are that 3D printing will impact your supply chain — soon, if not already.

Graham Bredemeyer is President at Collider Inc and one of our top-notch mentors at the Dynamo Accelerator.

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