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Focus: Manufacturing

Feature Article from Our Supply Chain Trends and Issues Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

Feb. 22 , 2011

Supply Chain News: How Soon will "Printed" Parts Revolutionize Supply Chains - and the World?


Increasingly, seems Matter of When not If; Mass Customization Finally Realized?


SCDigest Editorial Staff

The world of digitally "printed" components and finished goods is (somewhat under the radar screen) achieving enormous technical improvements and has moved rapidly from vision to reality, with enormous potential implications for supply chains and business.

It's a topic SCDigest has covered before (see Will Digital Manufacturing Transform Production Processes and the Supply Chain?), but a recent article on the topic in The Economist magazine shows that developments in the field are happening so fast and furious that more consistent media coverage on these pages is warranted, and an increasing number of manufacturing, supply chain, and company executive personnel need to get more in front of this technology wave.

SCDigest Says:

The technical progress for creating actual usable, not just prototypes, items over the past few years has been staggering, as digital printing technology has become better, faster, larger, and capable of handling more materials..
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What is 3D Digital Printing?

The basic idea is to use digital information and specialized equipment to create parts, components or complete products on-demand, generally in low volumes (though that tooo is changing). It is a technology that allows a printer-like device to create 3D parts using sophisticated software and - importantly - an increasingly wide range of materials in the production process. These materials - from plastics to titanium powder and more - are deposited bit by bit into a three-dimensional shape in a manner quite similar in a sense to how an ink jet printer deposits ink on a page to make letters or graphics.

The key difference, of course, is that the 3D printer builds across all three dimensions, not flat on a page. It uses a process that those in the industry call "additive manufacturing," meaning that the finished product starts with nothing, and is created by adding materials one layer at a time.

Compare that to the way many manufactured products and most "prototypes" parts or models are usually created - by subtracting or removing materials. For example, starting with a block of steel and having a human or a robot painstakingly remove materials from the block using any number of machine tools (lathes, drills, etc.) until the desired part is produced. In that approach, a tremendous amount of material is often wasted.

In all 3-D printing processes, sophisticated design software is used to take cross-sections of the part to be created and calculate how each layer needs to be constructed. From there, different digital printing technologies take different approaches to actually creating the item, but in general, materials (e.g., plastics, glass, metals and ceramics), often in a powdery form, are meticulous laid down for a given layer in the object being made.

Something is then done to that material to solidify and harden it, ranging from use of binding agents to lasers to liquid plastics. and more. Inks can also be applied to produce color.

A given layer is typically just a fraction of millimeter thick. After it has been printed, the support tray is lower by the same fraction of a millimeter, and the process begins again, with some machines able to use different materials together as part of the process.

Today, digital printing machine costs can range from $10,000 or so at the low end to $1 million more on the high end. They are becoming available in increasingly large sizes to meet a greater variety of digital manufacturing needs.

Scope of Products being Printed Right Now is Staggering

Digital printing began more than a decade ago primarily to serve the need to rapidly create prototype parts more quickly and much less expensively than the human machining processes that had always been used before.

But the technical progress for creating actual usable, not just prototypes, items over the past few years has been staggering, as digital printing technology has become better, faster, larger, and capable of handling more materials.

Digital printing industry analyst Terry Wohlers, for example, says right now more than 20% of the output of 3D printers is for final products, not just prototypes, and he predicts that this will rise to 50% by 2020. And that would be with significant growth in digital printing happening for prototypes at the same time, as the technology really expands in industries such as aerospace.
Some trends are also moving in digital printing's favor, such as use of composite materials for components in some industry sectors where those parts used to always be fabricated metals.

According to the Economist article, the bread of such products being digitally printed successfully today astounding:

• Titanium landing brackets for use in aircraft
• Industrial gloves made from nylon, stainless steel or titanium
• Mobile-phone cases where the shape, color and other features of the case can be personalized for each user
• Dental crowns ideally shaped for a given patient's mouth
• Medical implants

You get the idea. The possibilities are endless. As the Economist notes: "Only a few years ago making decorative lampshades with 3D printers seemed to be a highly unlikely business, but it has become an industry with many competing firms and sales volumes in the thousands.

(Manufacturing article continued below)



Impact on the Supply Chain

The ultimate impact on the supply chain from digital printing could be enormous. For starters, more rapid prototyping can shrink product development cycles and development costs, and therefore lead to even more rapid innovation cycles.

Similarly, more new product concepts likely will be pursued because the cost and time to prototype those ideas will be less.
A new era of true "mass customization" could be ignited, making the vision of such a world first hyped in the dot com era of the late 1990s a reality at last. From tennis shoes that are built precisely to the shape of a consumer's foot (left one a little longer, you say?) to precisely designed medical devices, the potential is almost endless.

The quality and/or cost of some products could also come down. For example, the design of some materials today is in part of function of the limits of the production techniques that must be used to make them. Digital printing in many cases can enable more precise and "elegant" designs, in some cases using nature's own designs that simply can't be replicated well by traditional production.

Jewelry, furniture and many other consumer product areas could be revolutionized by the approach, and has some people wondering if the dynamics will in some cases lead to domestic digital production of some items versus offshore manufacturing in low costs countries. While for some time at least the actual unit cost is likely to be higher for the printed product, consumers in some categories may be willing to pay more to get exactly what they want.

This in turn may lead to regional or local digital printing facilities where consumers or business can go to pick up the products they may even have designed themselves. Today, Nike produces its customer-designed "Nike ID" shoes in Asia and ships them to the US. In the future, the shoes may be printed quite close to that consumer's home, and be available in days rather than weeks as is now the case.


Service and repair parts could easily be impacted. Rather than keeping tens of thousands of slow moving inventory items waiting for when some customer actually needs one of them, tying up valuable working capital, companies might keep inventories of only the fastest moving parts and simply print up the C and D movers when ordered.

In another take on the same issue, a recent European conference sponsored by DHL asked if manufacturers might not be likely to print a "hot" needed part in the home country rather than having it expensively air freighted over night from Asia.
While traditional manufacturing approaches and economies of scale will continue to rule the roost for many products, some experts foresee blended factories that meld those traditional processes with digital ones depending on the component.

Finally, the technology may be highly disruptive to larger and more established industry participants by lowering the cost of entry to a market. Prototypes and final products may be producible with a lot less capital investment, especially as there surely will develop contracting centers that will print prototypes or finished goods as third party providers to other companies from their designs.

When will this technology become mainstream? It really is happening right now, and is definitely a trend supply chain and business managers need to keep on top of.

Is your company involved in digital printing efforts? How is it working out? Could this revolutionized manufacturing processes - and supply chains? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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