Widely practical, 3D printing is used primarily for prototyping and, more recently, distributed manufacturing. It is commonly seen in the following industries: architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, various engineering and medical industries, and fashion just to name a few.
What is 3D Printing, Exactly?
By definition, 3D printing is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects using a digital model. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing uses a process called the additive process and carries out the process under computer control.
In the additive process, layers of material are laid down in different shapes. This is in contrast to subtractive processes in manufacturing, which is what is traditionally used to produce goods and involves the removal of material by various methods (i.e. cutting, drilling, carving, etc.).
The technology and concept of 3D printing is not a new idea. In fact, 3D printing technology has been around since the 1980s. The first working 3D printer was created by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Crop. in 1984. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that companies started producing 3D printers for commercial distribution and use. This is partly due to a Moore’s Law type of progression; the development of the technology used in 3D printing has drastically impacted the price of 3D printers enough to be able to release it to consumer production.
How Will This Affect the Supply Chain?
Cerasis has released an excellent post regarding the impact of 3D printing particularly in inventory and logistics. The most interesting concept is that with the advent of 3D printers, the need to store finished products is nonexistent. There is no more need to store component parts before compiling the final product anymore; it essentially gets rid of the need to shelve or store products in warehouses anymore. This essentially collapses the supply chain to its most basic processes, which creates new efficiencies along the supply chain.
The 3D printing process can drastically alter the global supply chain and re-assemble it into a new local system. It can bypass the constraints of the traditional supply chain model: the need for low cost, high-volume assembly workers, real estate for stages of manufacturing and warehousing components, etc. Thus, the efficiencies of 3D printing impact the entire supply chain, from the cost to distribution and assembly to improving assembly cycle times.
Forbes released a post recently that suggests 3D printers essentially turn consumer products into digital content. The printers can already produce fairly detailed solid objects, though at this stage quite expensively. But according to Moore’s Law, and indeed looking at the history of 3D printing, prices have dropped significantly since the 1980s and will do so in the future. This could impact hardware stores and parts distribution services the same way e-books have impacted book stores.
Too Good to be True?
Tech Republic recently released a post suggesting that 3D printers are a potential double-edged sword and made some interesting points regarding what we should watch out for throughout the development of 3D printing as a process to be used by the masses.
The process of 3D printing itself, while efficient in many ways, are also not the most environmentally friendly. To start, they are energy hogs, 3D printers consume 50-100 times more electrical energy than injection molding and has a reliance on plastics. They are also known to pose health risks, especially with 3D printers used in the home. The emission from desktop 3D printers release unhealthy air emissions. There are also numerous issues on the corporate and legal side, involving potential national security risks, ethics and regulation, and corporate responsibility of products from 3D printed technology. So while 3D printing is something to look forward to, it is also something we should watch carefully.
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