The New Paradigm: Overcoming Supply Chain Pressures through 3D Printing

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Chief Economists Outlook, produced for 2023’s WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, found that the outlook for this year is “gloomy”, with over three-quarters (77%) of respondents expecting businesses to react to headwinds by optimising supply chains.

Today’s situation, while perhaps less disruptive than 2022 and the Covid years, is nonetheless precarious.  Inflation continues to be at decades-high levels, energy bills are still considerably elevated and supply chains are yet to engender the resilience to overcome the fragility to macro-economic changes that the last three years have shown them to have.

In the face of interrupted and risky sources for parts, manufacturing companies have resorted to stocking up, but that brings with it the need to lock up working capital, something that is highly undesirable with inflation at 8% and above.  While innovations such as AI-enabled planning and visibility solutions are certainly helping, the issues being faced continue to make supply chain operations costly, risky and exposed.  Moreover, the sustainability of supply chains is also in the focus of shareholders, customers and, increasingly, regulators.

Ultimately, what engineering and supply chain decision makers need is the best of all worlds: reliable, on-demand sources of parts, with a reduction in complexity and – better yet – a lower environmental footprint; a value chain that has lower costs and energy needs, yet the flexibility to react to changing demands virtually in real time.

The good news is that, for many items, such a virtuous possibility exists: one that uses 3D printing to source and produce items.

Already used by many firms in the aerospace, defence, energy, transport, medical and manufacturing sectors, 3D printing is increasingly the manufacturing option of choice for spare parts and tooling, with 47% of all 3D printing jobs now being for end-use, functional mechanical parts, and it isn’t difficult to see why: first, it can greatly reduce lead times for manufacturing end-to-end, allowing for faster product development, more efficient production and higher service levels. This results in savings in manufacturing costs by reducing or even eliminating the need for tooling and moulds.

With the capacity to make lots of one just as easily as of dozens or hundreds, it reduces inventory costs, first by enabling on-demand, digital manufacturing and second by removing the need to produce minimum or economic order quantities, which then need to be stocked or disposed of.  Of course, 3D printing crashes the amount of raw materials needed for manufacturing: generally, less than 3% of raw material is wasted in producing the finished item by 3D printing – and in many cases that is reduced to less than 1% – compared to up to 90% of raw materials wasted in traditional manufacturing.   In effect, it mitigates both inflationary pressures and sustainability risks.

Additionally, 3D printing provides greater design flexibility, allowing for the creation of complex and customized parts – even mass customisation – which translates to increased sales and higher customer satisfaction.

Being digital in nature, production can be relatively quickly redirected or ramped up and down, thereby bringing resilience to supply chains and mitigating disruptions from macro-economic and geographic risks.

Of course, there are constraints to be faced: 3D printing is a portfolio of technologies, each suitable for a particular set of materials and able to produce items within a small range of precision and tolerance.  Quality control and assurance of 3D printing is still developing, although many QA schemas are already in place for safety-critical applications in, for example, the aerospace, energy and medical sectors.  Intellectual property issues must be clarified and resolved if existing designs are to be reproduced through 3D printing, something that is often overcome through negotiation with original manufacturers.  Identifying which items to produce using 3D printing is a complex task, needing data analysis of what can be large volumes of physical and supply chain characteristics, and the quality of those data sets is often a hurdle.  Design drawings, for instance, may only exist in paper form, needing to be scanned and often amended for them to be useable for digital CAD.

Being a multi-skilled and multi-capability value chain, 3D printing also needs the orchestration of several elements: data analysis, engineering design, technology, post-processing and software: that is a non-trivial task.  To overcome this, engineering firms like Shell, Sidel and Dutch Rail have turned to companies such as DiManEx, which provide organisations with the full, end-to-end value chain via a single point of contact nd contract, bringing together all those capabilities through a global network of qualified partners as well as the lessons learnt from overcoming the constraints across industry sectors. With such an approach, companies from start- and scale-ups to long-established, global industrial firms are leveraging 3D printing to produce new designs for market research, tools for traditional manufacturing and injection moulding, spare parts and items destined for sale.  They are able to do so quickly, with low cost and low risk, working their way along their own journeys to industrialising 3D printing at their own pace.

By working together with partners such as DiManEx, engineering and supply chain leaders looking to stay competitive and efficient in today’s fast-changing business environment will mitigate many of the pressures that they face in their supply chain by converting from a physical to a digital supply chain, giving them sorely needed peace of mind.

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