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SCDigest Expert Insight: Supply Chain by Design

About the Author

Dr. Michael Watson, one of the industry’s foremost experts on supply chain network design and advanced analytics, is a columnist and subject matter expert (SME) for Supply Chain Digest.

Dr. Watson, of Northwestern University, was the lead author of the just released book Supply Chain Network Design, co-authored with Sara Lewis, Peter Cacioppi, and Jay Jayaraman, all of IBM. (See Supply Chain Network Design – the Book.)

Prior to his current role at Northwestern, Watson was a key manager in IBM's network optimization group. In addition to his roles at IBM and now at Northwestern, Watson is director of The Optimization and Analytics Group.

By Dr. Michael Watson

August 27, 2013

3D Printing and Robotics—Disrupting the Dominant Supply Chain Model

An IBM White Paper compliments MIT's Chris Caplice’s Research that New Technologies Will Disrupt the Dominant Supply Chain Design

Dr. Watson Says:

...3D printing and advanced robotics may change your supply chain.
What Do You Say?

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Supply Chain Digest recently reported on MIT’s Chris Caplice’s research in how new trends in the market may disrupt the dominant supply chain design.  The blog and video interview are worth a view—changes to manufacturing economies of scale and 3D printing may have a dramatic impact on design of your supply chain.

Earlier in the year, I, along with Alex Scott (A Ph.D. student at Penn State) had the chance to participate in a similar research project with IBM.  IBM was trying to understand how 3D printing, advanced robotics, and open source hardware would impact the supply chain for the electronics industry. 

For this study, IBM looked at the hearing aid, cell phone, LCD display, and washing machine industries.  They bought a product in each of these areas, and broke it down and determined what components could be 3D printed now, 5 years for now, and in 10 years.   They also did a detailed study on what components could be assembled by advanced robotics.

We then took the data and built supply chain models to understand how these trends would impact the industry’s supply chain.

Previous Columns by Dr. Watson

The Three Use Cases for Data Scientists

Learn Python, PuLP, Jupyter Notebooks, and Network Design

EOQ Model and the Hidden Costs of Fixed Costs

CSCMP Edge - Nike Quote: "It is All an Art Project Until you Get it on Someone's Feet"

Supply Chain by Design: Why Business Leaders should think of AI as an Umbrella Term


The impacts could be dramatic.  As an example, in 10 years, you may be able to 3D print almost the entire hearing aid—dramatically shrinking the number of components.  Like Chris Caplice suggests, this has a dramatic impact on localization.  The figure below shows how a hearing aid manufacture goes from one plant to many plants within ten years.

For other products, the advanced robotics drives down assembly costs and allows for more local manufacturing. 

You should keep an eye out for these trends, they may have a big impact on your supply chain.  Or worse, if your competitors move first, you could see a dramatic shift in market share among different companies.

IBM has a nice educational white paper, video, and sample calculator that gives you more information.

Final Thoughts

Our work on this project showed us that 3D printing and advanced robotics will impact each industry differently.  You should understand how it may impact yours.

Recent Feedback

One thought about the potential impact of this is that, despite a shift in the org/dests and distances of transportation, this revolution may actually make transportation more efficient. The Laws of Thermodynamics require that the same amount of material will still need to be shipped. However, instead of shipping many LTL shipments of hearing aids across the country, we may see an increase in TL shipments of printing materials to more manufacturing plants, which will actually ship more efficiently due to the nature of the freight (very little wasted space).

Logistics Engineer
JB Hunt
Aug, 29 2013