A growing number of large facilities such as warehouses are starting to consider 3D printing for their supply chain processes. Instead of finished products taking up physical inventory space, products can be made on demand. Here are important reasons why supply chain managers should envision 3D printing in their operations.
Emergence of the 3D Printing Industry
The global 3D printing market has grown rapidly in the past decade. It's currently worth about $12.6 billion and is expected to grow 17 percent by 2023. Early adopters of 3D printing in supply chains have been manufacturers, third-party logistics (3PL) firms and inventors who want to test multiple prototypes.
Even though 3D printers are expensive, they represent a more cost-effective way to produce low-volume products. They are particularly more efficient when making customized items. The products are designed in computer-assisted design (CAD) software that generates an STL file or other 3D print formats such as CAD, OBJ, and 3MF.
A key reason why 3D printers are important to supply chains is they can keep supply at zero until demand calls for printing products. Each product can then be printed without leaving behind any material waste. This process eliminates the problem of overproduction, which can lead to huge losses. It also saves warehouse space, avoiding the problem of low-demand items creating clutter.
Serving the On Demand Model
The on demand model of 3D printed products is efficient in multiple ways. Not only does it save space and prevent waste, but it also allows the customer to personalize the product through options in the ordering process. The more power you give the consumer to customize their own products to suit their individual tastes and needs, the more valuable you become as a resource.
Purchasing a 3D printer then selling services can be a lucrative business that grows quickly when you consider most people cannot afford to buy one. But once you own the means of modern production, you can find a market of creative tech enthusiasts willing to invest in 3D printing as an efficient process for testing new ideas.
An entrepreneur who envisions multiple prototypes can benefit by investing in a 3D printer to make fresh ideas materialize into test products. Medical equipment and prosthetic developers can benefit enormously from 3D print machines to make personalized products for patients.
The original idea behind the first 3D printers that appeared in the 1980s was for fast prototyping. All along 3D printers have been more about refining one-off or low-run products to fit specific needs of buyers.
The fact that 3D printers can actually print food makes it more possible for automated restaurants to populate the landscape in the future. Just like with any other 3D printed products, the food is made in layers like pizzas, wafers, or sandwiches. The layers, of course, are made of edible products, vitamins, and nutrients.
Watch the recording of our "Made to Order" webinar to hear from industry experts on a wide scope of topics on the latest trends and challenges surrounding 3D printing technology, with predictions and tips for those new to or experienced in 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
Contributing to Sustainable Production
One of the most relevant themes spreading across all businesses in the 21st century is sustainability. The supply chain crisis of the pandemic era serves as a reminder that businesses must always have backup plans in order to be resilient. Creating a list of backup suppliers is one way of practicing sustainability. Another way is to invest in a 3D printer.
By using a 3D printer as the means of production, you can promote your business as going green, since it contributes to waste reduction. It also avoids the problem of producing a room full of products that go to waste due to low demand. Many of these products end up in a landfill, whereas a 3D printed product only exists if there's a demand for it.
Maintaining an accurate balance between supply and demand can save a warehouse thousands of dollars per year. A common challenge with inventory management is making accurate consumer demand forecasts to determine the amount of units to keep in storage. Sometimes wrong guesses can lead to financial losses in traditional warehousing. But with a 3D printer, you don't have to base supply on forecasted demand.
Another way 3D printing offers a sustainable solution from a manufacturing perspective is that it can be used to serve different niche markets. While each niche may involve low-volume production, the combination of niches can add up to a large market. Nurturing niche markets can save marketing costs since it doesn't require expensive media advertising to reach a mass market.
Simplifying the Supply Chain
Once you have a 3D printer to create specific products, you don't necessarily need a complex supply chain to support it. In fact, you may not need a warehouse at all if you only sell 3D printed products, depending on the volume of your business. It's best to limit 3D production to low-volume runs, since today's 3D printers aren't designed for mass production.
You can trim your supply chain to producers of materials for your 3D printed products, which are often in the form of metal, polymers or ceramics. Just add a shipping service and you have a lean modern supply chain. Each business can better streamline its supply chain once it has a 3D printer on deck. High levels of precision may require an investment in a CNC machine with 3D printing capabilities.
Another advantage of 3D printing is it will lead to less returns for inaccurate order fulfillment. The fact that no product exists if no order for it exists saves you from the problem of lost, stolen, or broken items in inventory.
Embracing 3D printing in supply chain management can resolve many storage and waste problems for manufacturers. You can manage inventory much more efficiently with an on demand form of production. Eliminating waste and serving customers with more customized options are other encouraging reasons to invest in 3D printing.