3D printing is now considered “a standard” of manufacturing at Siemens ©Siemens AG
3D printing is now considered “a standard” of manufacturing at Siemens ©Siemens AG

Can 3D printing plug the gaps in your supply chain?

2 June 2022

Procurement’s investment in this underused technology could make sourcing more flexible

Do you want to make operations more sustainable, flexible and efficient? Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, could be a valuable asset on the journey to supply security and responsible practices. “Its potential to utilise new business models is huge,” says Dr Karsten Heuser, head of additive manufacturing at Siemens.

AM treads the line of being common in occurrence yet niche in application, straddling as it does the printing of houses and body parts, of making unique prototypes and reverse-engineering old items that can no longer be sourced. But while businesses understand how the technology works, few have considered what it could do in the field of supply chain management. Siemens is one of those rare adopters, with its dedicated Centre of Competence network set up to do exactly that. 

Choose your printer

The firm runs six AM hubs across the world – five of which are working sites housing Stratasys 3D printers, and one an interactive experience centre in Erlangen, Germany. This last serves as a type of showroom to demonstrate the technology, as well as its capabilities and how businesses can initiate or scale-up their AM activities.

Each hub is independent but joined to the Centre of Competence via the AM Network – an intelligent software service that operates in a similar way to a follow-me printing service, allowing staff and customers to produce a part in as little as 24 hours.

Say you need a new gripper for handling processes with robots, Heuser says: “You upload the 3D file of a part together with some basic requirements and choose the location to print the part. The intelligent platform guides you to the right technology and machine. For example, if a producer has requested an order, it automatically calculates the costs, they can accept the order and drag and drop the part files to their scheduling and nesting area on the 3D printer.”

The company currently has around 150 external suppliers connected to the platform, which have all gone through a qualification and certification process with procurement before being allowed to manage their own orders and delivery requirements. With more companies considering AM, what are the core benefits?

Speed and flexibility, says Heuser: “AM printed parts are just one lever to increase productivity. The obvious use-cases are prototypes, but AM is also being used in production to streamline manufacturing or to support maintenance and reduce downtimes. And there is the potential to do a root cause analysis of a defect component and print an optimised design with better quality.”

This has been critical for the Siemens Mobility business during the pandemic, as AM allowed the team to overhaul its approach to rail stock maintenance. In this way, they could perform inspections on trains still in service, then have the necessary parts ordered, purchased and delivered to the depot ready for when the train arrives, without concerns over lead times and customs delays.

But, Heuser asserts, AM still has untapped potential in end-user parts, which the pandemic is making evermore apparent. Access to a 3D printer in a nearby region, or even a choice of regions, enhances resilience and sourcing becomes “less about saving part costs on a one-to-one comparison basis, but the benefit for the reduction of downtime of either a machine or a train as a main value driver”.

Sustainably printed parts

While AM isn’t applicable for all component challenges, because it can’t resolve the scarcity of microchips, it can boost supply availability for many non-electronic and generic parts. And Heuser says this has been the case during the pandemic, since when there arose “a sense of urgency” regarding AM’s potential to mitigate supply bottlenecks and logistical problems. And the perspective on cost changed too.

Price has been a long-standing barrier to wider uptake of AM, but with material and transport costs rising dramatically, it could be a more competitive package – in terms of overall value if not in pure savings. “You always need to view it holistically,” says Heuser.

“Sometimes, the 3D printing of a part is still more expensive compared with injection molding; but if you take into account that you can consider printing parts at a certified supplier located close to where it is needed, this would have a positive impact on the delivery time.”

And the holistic view on value is not limited to cost, but also this urgency on finding more sustainable sources, which AM can deliver due to having lower carbon and energy consumption and less material waste than traditional methods. “Any new technology needs to support sustainability, and this is a main value driver for the use of 3D printed parts.

“At last year’s EMO Fair, we showed that worn-out gear wheels for wind turbines can be repaired instead of producing them every time from scratch. This saves roughly 60% energy versus producing new gear wheels. Or there’s the performance of improved parts, like weight reduction lowers the energy consumption while using parts in a vehicle or flow optimised parts which improves the energy consumption by making processes like cooling e-car batteries or print heads more efficient.”

Can procurement grow the AM market?

So what’s the potential for AM in supply chain management? “Huge! I would expect AM to become another ‘classical’ production technology in the future,” says Heuser. But, he adds, we need to educate our workforce to “think AM parts” because it’s not only about the hardware, it’s essential to get customer experience right to make sourcing simpler. This could be through integrating the system with ERP and other legacy procurement tools, and “automatic cost calculation engines or tracking, as well as communication features and secure file transfer handling over the platform help to streamline processes”.

The case for AM is looking optimistic but, Heuser argues, while Siemens wants to support the growth of 3D printing capabilities across the world, for AM to play a legitimate role in manufacturing and supply in the future, a collective effort is needed by the AM community and industry, and by procurement investing in such tools, to build an efficient supply chain of part producers, best-in-class tools, software and automated machinery.

He concludes that for those unconvinced, think about “increased performance, faster delivery, less material consumption, digital warehouses instead of physical assets, repaired and improved parts, improved sustainability – and price and delivery times”. Because while procurement may not be sold on the technology itself, it should be intrigued by the rewards of additive manufacturing. 

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