The 3D printing revolution you haven’t heard about

We’ve read the articles and watched the TV stories. It’s yesterday’s news that 3D printing is one of the most promising technologies to emerge in recent years. We’re well-versed in the fascinating array of use cases for this technology—from healthcare, to housing, to handicrafts. One of my personal favorites is the printed hearing aid—a device that’s transformed a labor-intensive industry.

By Antony Bourne, global manufacturing industry director at IFS

3D printing is much bigger than its hype and it’s already a part of today’s manufacturing business. The technology is proving indispensable in research and prototyping, and for creating unique and obsolete parts—in particular for the automotive and aerospace industries.

But one area of 3D printing that’s not had its due time in the spotlight is the slow but unstoppable march towards a completely new way of managing manufacturing processes. As 3D printing ushers in a new era of securing the right parts at the right time, we’re seeing a fundamental change in the supply chain and it’s time to start considering what this means for your business.

Supply chain disruption

3D printing won’t replace high-volume manufacturing, but the ability to print-on-demand for parts is hugely attractive. The technology makes it possible to print and have parts in a few hours, without the need to buy large volumes, and with positive implications for the environment as customers source products locally, and quickly.

This change means fundamental disruption to the supply chain. It dramatically reduces lead-time and reactiveness, and presents immediate opportunities for make-to-order manufacturing. Rather than keeping spare stock on hand, parts can be printed as needed from a stock of materials. For industries where storage for parts inventory is limited, this is welcome news. We may even see manufacturers source 3D-printed parts on their own premises, bypassing the supply chain altogether.

In the near term, 3D printing is creating demand for smaller, hyper-local premises. But the future ramifications for the supply chain are huge—in particular, the need to have information systems in place to protect the integrity of the new manufacturing process.

New challenges

The onset of the 3D-printing revolution poses new challenges for assuring the quality and authenticity of products. Competitors attempting to reverse-engineer products will be able to do so far more rapidly since there is no need to develop the likes of tools, dies, fixtures and jigs. That’s why, come 2018, 3D printing will have triggered the loss of at least $100 billion per year in IP, globally.

So how can manufacturers ensure they are purchasing genuine replacement parts for industrial equipment? And how can equipment manufacturers be sure that equipment they sell to customers is under warranty and uses genuine parts? Part serialization—the type of functionality normally associated with highly regulated industries such as defense—may become attractive across the board. We’ll see attempts to embed ‘DNA’ into 3D-printed parts, and the development of processes capable of checking for DNA matches.

Part serialization can be achieved in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Blueprints to be downloaded for printing should have a serial ID attached to them that corresponds to the serial ID in the ERP application. This way, it’s possible to ensure warranty issues are not compromised and quality standards are maintained.

ERP will be essential for supporting these authenticity measures and controlling stock at every level.

ERP

Accommodating 3D printing within an ERP system requires a few considerations. All manufacturers using 3D printing will need process manufacturing software in their ERP application to integrate traceability and provide fast access to data on DNA and blueprints being applied by different plants.

It will be more important than ever to maintain records of the chemical components that make up parts. While 3D printing might reduce inventory for spare parts, an enterprise application will need sufficient forecasting functionality to determine the amount of raw materials to be consumed—and how much usage the 3D printer will receive. Manufacturers will need to be able to carry out regular quality checks to determine if parts conform to specifications and requirements.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that 3D printing is revolutionary. After all, it’s capable of fundamentally changing supply chains and the way in which things are produced.

As the most cost-effective and streamlined way of addressing the unique authenticity and stock challenges associated with 3D printing, ERP systems are proving paramount in the new age of manufacturing.