3D Printing’s Impact on the Supply Chain … Not Much Yet


Some pundits are predicting that 3D printing will completely transform the supply chain. Not so fast. 3D printing is having some substantial impacts now, but major supply chain transformation, during this decade, isn’t one of them.


The logic behind 3D printing’s transformation of the supply chain is that it allows production to be extremely local and completely just-in-time/demand driven. In this idealized world, there is no need to transport or hold any inventory (except of course the pellets and powders that feed the 3D printers). Products can be produced on demand at a local 3D print shop. However, there are some significant disconnects between this vision and the reality today and for many years (perhaps decades) to come.

What 3D Printing Is Good For Today

This is not to say that 3D printing is not having an impact on design and manufacturing today. It is. 3D printing is starting to have important impacts on prototyping, customization, and some low volume manufacturing.

Concept Models / Rapid Functional Prototyping

Probably the area of most profound impact is in the design phase, especially when combined with the digitization of design-to-manufacturing.1 3D printing makes it much quicker to build a conceptual or functional prototype. For example, Ford uses 3D printing to prototype engine parts, such as a cylinder head. Turnaround times are quicker and less expensive than the traditional machine-shop approach. The use of 3D printing for prototyping is having a real impact on compressing development cycles and costs.

First Run / Short Run Tooling

Tooling for high volume production lines — such as injection molds, jigs and fixtures, castings — often has long lead times (months) and high costs (millions of dollars). 3D printing can be used to make starter tooling for the first run much more quickly and less expensively than traditional methods. 3D printed tooling may not be as durable, but it allows manufacturing to start sooner. Plus you are not betting the farm on that one set of tooling. If there is a problem with the tool, it can be redone much more economically and quickly before committing to the final, high-volume, long-lead-time tool. The same concept can be used to make tooling for short manufacturing runs that previously could not be cost-justified.

Customization / Personalization

Another exciting current application for 3D printing is in customized and personalized products. These include things such as hearing aids, dental work (crowns, bridges, orthodontic appliances), glasses, jewelry, shoes, toys, furniture, prosthetics and implants, and eventually even human organs. While these represent relatively low volumes, fully customized objects can be created at lower costs and more quickly than previously possible. A variation of this is the ability to create out-of-production spare parts, such as for vintage machines, more quickly and cheaply than having those parts custom machined.

What 3D Printing Is Not Good For (Yet)

High Volume Production

For high volume production, there is simply no contest between the cost and velocity of traditional manufacturing methods vs. 3D printing. 3D printing can cost an order of magnitude or more per part than high volume production and can take literally thousands of times longer per part to produce. Furthermore, mass produced parts are often of higher reliability, quality, and strength than a 3D printed part. These differences, especially cost and volume-velocity, are one reason that most manufacturing will not go to 3D printing anytime soon.

Complex Machines

3D printing can make simple machines. But you can’t print a car or a laptop or an iPhone. These complex machines are made of thousands of parts, a large variety of materials, and often with specific parts needing accuracies and/or materials characteristics beyond what 3D printing is capable of today.

Fine Fabrics / Natural Materials

3D Printing can make chain-mail-like fabrics. But it cannot make fine fabrics (at least that this author is aware of). You won’t see Brooks Brothers printing their ties and suits anytime soon. Furthermore, 3D Printers most commonly print plastics and metals. As far as I know, you can’t print a real wooden chair, or a cotton shirt, or a Brussels sprout.

Food, Pharmaceuticals, Fine Chemicals, and Other Process Manufacturing

You may be able to print some simple foods (like I suppose a cracker — but it still has to be baked), but you can’t print a can of soup, or penicillin, or just about any process-manufactured substance.

Semiconductors / Nanotechnology

There are 3D Printers that can print simple electronics, such as antennas or simple passive and active components and circuits. But 3D printers cannot achieve anywhere near the nano-scale features required for today’s semi-conductors or nano-technology.

Global High Volume Production Still Prevails

So, when we step back and take a look at what 3D printing is good and not so good at, we are drawn to the conclusion that today the vast majority of production of the world’s goods will remain in the traditional manufacturing model for many years to come. The disciplines of supply chain and lean manufacturing have sought to shorten lead times and allow (when appropriate) for smaller batch sizes. We have made tremendous strides on those fronts, but mostly due to things other than 3D printing.2 In spite of progress, we still have big factories, far flung global supply chains with 90% of freight traveling by ocean, and long lead times in many domains (e.g. semi-conductors). You cannot yet go down to your corner 3D print shop and ask them to print out an iPhone, or a refrigerator, or a custom-fitted suit, or a tossed salad, or a Honda Accord. All those things still require the supply chains we’ve all come to know and love (or hate) in order to produce and deliver them. That will be the case for years, and probably decades, to come. But look on the bright side — it means job security for all of us supply chain and logistics professionals!


1 Visualization and simulation in particular have allowed much more to be done in the purely digital domain, reducing or even eliminating prototyping steps required. — Return to article text above

2 Such as quick-change-over tooling, inventory optimization, improved forecasting, etc. — Return to article text above

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