With the rise of e-tailers like Amazon who are intent on making rapid delivery the new normal, consumers and even businesses are accustomed to receiving the goods they order fast. Next day shipping is considered a must-have, and Amazon even offers delivery in one hour in certain areas.

Because of this shift, many manufacturers are forced to turn orders around quickly to remain competitive and keep customer satisfaction high; but with lean inventories, this can be difficult to accomplish. One strategy being used is 3D printing. This gives manufacturers a way to deliver products quickly without having to keep large quantities of stock in inventory.

The Supply Chain Advantages of 3D Printing

With a minimally required infrastructure, 3D printing enables products to be created quickly and cost-effectively. Because much of the value is in the design IP, 3D printing also enables rapid customizations, which satisfies another customer demand. The process also adapts quickly to changes in demand and simplifies implementing ECNs and process changes. In addition, since it generates little waste, 3D printing also meets the demands of today’s green initiatives.

Major manufacturers such as GE are using 3D printing to manufacture many of the parts they use for production. The improved speed of 3D printers has made production volume runs feasible, and the printers now accept a wider variety of materials as feedstocks, further broadening the applicability of 3D printing.

Supply Chain Simplicity

In the past, much of the complexity of the design and supply chain management processes hinged on sourcing decisions. Although organizations often outsource production to Asian manufacturers due to the low cost of production, the high costs of travel, communication, buffer inventories, transportation and challenge of managing design changes frequently go unaccounted for. In addition, transportation costs have risen to the point where they are a significant factor in the supply chain. When an organization chooses a 3D printing strategy to keep up with demand, they are better able to reduce the number of nodes (suppliers) in their supply chains to reduce total time and cost of production. Planning and production cycles are shorter, and products can be cost-effectively manufactured close to the point of use, reducing dependence on overseas suppliers.

Production, Spares and Prototypes Can All Be 3D Printed

It’s well known that 3D printing has, to a large extent, replaced hand machining for prototypes. Using it has long been faster and less expensive than custom crafting prototypes by hand. This has become a popular avenue for multiple reasons, with cost and quick turnaround being in the top 5.

Many asset-intensive companies (such as airlines) already use 3D printing to reduce investment in MRP inventories and keep expensive assets up and running. With a 3D printer in the maintenance hangar, the airline can create any needed part quickly rather than suffer the delays of sourcing and delivering the item from a distant location. The downside of this is that many small companies that supply spares and components may find themselves in competition with a 3D printer.

Shorter planning cycles, faster lead times and environmental advantages of 3D printing are likely to quickly outweigh any remaining drawbacks. On-site production using 3D printing for production quantities, spares and prototypes is the wave of the future for supply chains.

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