3D Printing's Ability to Transform Supply Chains is Years Away
There has been a lot of breathless coverage of 3D Printing, more accurately called additive manufacturing.
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Let's begin with semantics. We have understood clearly that there are many way of conducting a distributed, digital manufacturing system that are additive by definition and are NOT 3Dprinting. So, that debate might begin here and not mean much in the long term unless the lawyers get involved.
Supply chains can and will change if we start looking closely at Semantics. In this domain, innovation is minuscule, Nobody seems to have set out to change norms, just jumped on the bandwagon. For two reasons:
a) if you make tiny objects, you can still run a centralized operation and ship affordably
b) if you plan a business model on rates negotiated with FEDEX or UPS, you are not even looking to change distributed manufacturing.
Consider a product made via 3DP from polymers: It is not worth the trouble to micromanage a few operators per location in 60 cities across a country who can run a high-tech printer and supervise the logistics of delivery from there. There isn't sufficient volume for such consumption, so the superior industrial machines cannot be yet distributed. In this, the supply change is going to see change only when shipping is expensive and machines are cheaper, in combination.
If your object type is large and heavy, or of unwieldy shape, shipping is already expensive. If it has a history of localized purchasing (for the said reason) in an established market, it is easy to replace offshoring-import-distribution by localized Additive Manufacturing and make a complete change to the supply chain. There is a lot more detail to be discussed, but an example might be say, automotive parts like crankshafts. If a 3D Foundry to coin a cliché, can run files of all old and new model cars, on machines to print replacement crankshafts, there is a possibility that such operations can now be distributed. This would change the supply chain drastically.
With other materials produced additively, like wood objects, furniture would be another such example.
The disruption to the supply chain is also likely sooner, rather than later. If we recall, oil prices had to reach a certain high for Alaska to be an affordable drilling destination. Supply chain overhead is already high enough, and complex enough that room exists to slide in new and simplified ways of doing things.
Players in the 3D domain need to look beyond the details of material composition and affordability of manufacturing. There is money to be saved and re-allocated, if one brings delivery methods into the fold. Also, if size of manufactured objects can increase so that shipping them becomes a challenge, we will see changes sooner than anticipated. For the better of course.