3D printing – possibilities must be weighed against potential risks

posted by Klaus Rüth
20 March 2015

In recent years, we have seen the rapid growth of 3D printing at an unprecedented rate. From personalised golf sticks to customised jewellery, the expansion of this new technology is far-reaching.

With consumers now able to select, design and produce products from the comfort of their own desktops, the question is, how will this affect supply chains? Undoubtedly the impact will be significant, but it remains difficult to predict the exact outcomes of this new technology.

Its potential is simple to understand – 3D printing could dramatically reduce, and in some cases even eliminate, product development and manufacturing processes. An 18-month product development cycle could potentially be reduced to one day in certain instances.

In addition, the levels of inventory carried, the planning required for long distance supply chains and the core structure of tooling are likely to diminish or disappear altogether.

A key trend that 3D printing is responding to is mass customisation. Creativity has traditionally remained in the hands of designers when it comes to product design. Now, thanks to 3D printing, this creativity is being passed increasingly onto the consumer. By shifting the responsibility for key processes such as product development to the customer, companies are able to respond to key consumer trends and reduce costs.   

An example of this can be seen in service part logistics. Through 3D printing, engineers are able to download designs for spare machinery parts, print them, and install them, in the time it would take you to make a cup of tea. A series of processes which would traditionally require a range of stakeholders, from manufacturers to carriers, are placed completely in the consumer’s hands.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the technology is still in its infancy and it is difficult to outline the precise effect it will have on the industry as a whole. Moreover, a number of issues linked to the proliferation of 3D printing remain, such as liability.

While companies can benefit financially from the new technology, it is unclear where the responsibility will lie for faulty product they did not make themselves.

The emergence of 3D printing brings with it a host of exciting developments, both for companies and consumers. However, alongside these developments are challenges that companies must respond to if they are fully realise the benefits in a safe and controlled manner.

☛ Klaus Rüth is senior director analytics & supply chain services at HAVI Global Solutions.

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