Impact of 3-D Printing on Supply Chains

One of the really intriguing developments in technology lately is the concept of 3-D printing. Who knows where it will lead … will General Motors or Toyota someday simply print whole automobiles as one large and seamless piece of plastic? Maybe Frigidaire will simply print up a bunch of new refrigerators.
But let’s not get too ‘blue-sky’ right now, since a more immediate and mundane use could have a huge impact on Supply Chains of a whole swath of businesses ranging from automobile repair to plumbing supplies. I had my car in for service recently. Once the mechanic diagnosed the problem I was told that he would need to get the part from his local Toyota dealer that he normally deals with. But it turned out that the dealer also didn’t have the part, and he would need to get it from some higher echelon location in Toyota’s supply chain.

Well I can envision a future where the Toyota dealer could simply pull the specs for the replacement part off of a secure company website, and print off the part in a matter of an hour or two. The new item would probably be made out of plastic but maybe in the far distant future they would give me the option of getting my replacement in metal if I wanted to spend some extra money.
I can see this kind of thing playing out in lots of scenarios. A plumbing problem in your home necessitates a new widget but your house is old and none of its components are the standard size and replacements are hard to find. Using 3-D printing, the plumbing supply house could simply download the necessary design and produce the part as needed.

Can you imagine how this might impact long-distance supply chains that reach across international boundaries half-a-world away? Using this technology, companies wouldn’t need to keep so much money tied up in replacement parts stored in multi-echelon supply chains. They would simply keep some amount of plastic stored at a relatively forward location that could be made into any one of a hundred different parts as demand would dictate.  The impact of this would be huge. There are whole sectors of the economy solely geared toward storing and moving parts and replacements forward along a supply chain. For better or worse, 3-D printing is going to have a tremendous impact on just what it means to “manufacture” something.

About John Hughes

John Hughes has led the implementation of production scheduling models at such clients as Rohm and Haas, Hercules Chemicals, Bridgestone Firestone, and Exxon Chemicals.

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