MITSUBISHI ELECTRIC Changes for the Better
EMEA
Supply chain

Will 3D printing technology impact global supply chains?

09.11.20233 min read

3D printing is one of the fastest-growing manufacturing technologies. The term ‘print-ing’ is used because objects are created based on a digital model, without the use of additional machines or tools. Pairing this technology with the capabilities of tradi-tional printing provides an astonishing opportunity for industry.

It enables the production of high-quality parts, shortens the supply chain and, because there’s no need to ship parts between contractor and assembly plant, it speeds up production. Just like using a text file whose contents can be printed anywhere in the world, 3D printing relieves us of the need for traditional mail.

The vision

Suppose we need parts made of plastic, so we order them from our contractor. He designs them, selects the manufacturing technology, produces the finished parts, performs the quality control checks, packs them and sends the shipment on its way. In the meantime, we’re waiting for it so we can get on with our work. How might the story of this shipment turn out? It might arrive on time, but then again – who knows? – it might be late. It might also get lost or damaged along the way. Your entire production process comes to a grinding halt because of the absence of a single part.

Now let's look at the alternative scenario. Our contractor designs a part, tests the prepared model and sends it as a file to a printing centre in a nearby town. The contractor may have many such authorised centres in different countries. It can also use independent 3D printers serving multiple clients. The printers are versatile and it takes only a little while to switch them from, for example, producing laptop cases to making external parts for cash registers.

The traditional method would require making a mould, preparing injection moulding machines and accessories. It’s impossible to do it quickly, cheaply and in multiple locations at the same time. 3D printing solves this problem. What's more, the differences between the cost of producing a single unit and a whole series of them are negligible. Thus, 3D printing can benefit not only the assem-bly shop, but also a service shop in need of a single replacement part.

Reality

Many aspects of 3D printing technology are rapidly evolving. The number of materials that can be printed from is growing. Initially these were just a few plastics but today the assortment of fila-ments is extensive. It is possible to print from metal alloys. There is ongoing research into printing from biological materials, such as tissue.

Notably, the precision of printing is high enough for the quality of the completed item to be ac-ceptable without additional processing, other than a simple removal of excess material from the base of the print.

Manufacturers gained similar capabilities for the first time after the introduction of computer nu-merically controlled (CNC) machine tools. In that case too, the most important thing was a digital model of the workpiece. Today, you can find many such models available free of charge on the Internet. These include pens, small tools, toys, among other things. The difference is that CNC machine tools require preparation, setting up the appropriate tools and supervising the machining process. 3D printers are much simpler and more versatile in this regard.

Important questions

Given the development of 3D printing technology, it could prove beneficial in many ways, as out-lined by the following questions:

  • How can customised parts be produced at optimal cost?
  • How does this relate to mass production?
  • How to prevent the soaring cost of manufacturing and storage of spare parts?
  • How can you accelerate product development and prototyping to stay competitive?
  • In what ways can you imagine completely new products beyond tools or wax patterns?

Photo: Getty Images


Topics

Supply chain