Additive manufacturing, commonly called 3D printing, has long been heralded as a rapid prototyping tool. Now, the technology – the process of depositing heated material layer-upon-layer to create a three-dimensional product – is being recognized for the impact it can have throughout the supply chain.
While faster prototyping remains a distinct advantage of 3D printing, lesser-known benefits are starting to steal the show.
To be specific, 3D printing is helping companies improve three Cs:
If complexity is the biggest hurdle to efficiency, isn't it odd that a popular smart phone's components have been around the world more times than a Delta jet before the device lands in your hand? Not necessarily, according to supply chain experts who know that certain products require specialty suppliers and crisscrossing global supply chains.
But if the product being made is not as specialized as hand-held computer, and if it doesn't need a global chain of specialized suppliers, 3D printing may be a viable option.
In fact, many companies are looking at ways to reduce the complexity of the composition of their products as well as the supply chain.
Case in point: Some commercial jet makers have been using 3D printing to reduce the complexity and weight of their parts and components. The long-term impact can be huge – lighter jets use less fuel. Less fuel consumption make jets more attractive and marketable to buyers, particularly commercial airlines. Lighter, less complicated products requiring a smaller global footprint to produce can also help to reduce a company's carbon footprint and reduce waste produced in the subtractive manufacturing process.
"I am seeing that 3D printing can help companies find meaningful efficiencies," says Alan Amling, vice president, UPS strategy. "You can tweak a process here or change a supplier there, but this is one of the few game-changing tools available to businesses today."
Amling adds that 3D printing can also help with products that have unusual or complex geometric designs. "Rather than pulling together a long list of products from multiple locations that fit exacting specifications, 3D printing can help to simplify some products by building them as a single unit, from the ground up."
Carrying "just in case" inventory is a financial burden, yet the consequences of missed orders could be even greater. 3D printing opens the possibility of producing on-demand inventory, reducing the need for safety stock.
"When we think of the perils of slow-moving inventory it's retailers or distributors who typically come to mind," says Rick Smith, CEO of Fast Radius, UPS's 3D printing partner. "But other industries can benefit, too, like sellers of promotional items when customers need faster turnaround than shipping from Asia can provide."
Smith adds that the list of industries trying 3D printing is growing. "One of the benefits of the UPS-Fast Radius alliance is that companies can explore their 3D printing options without having to risk investing in commercial high-grade equipment."
No matter what a business sells, keeping customers happy is always top priority. And, for suppliers, keeping or losing customers depends on how well they deliver on expectations – whether that means quicker repairs or producing a one-of-a-kind wedding cake topper.
Fast Radius's Smith notes that a growing number of companies are looking to 3D printing as a competitive advantage. "Most vertical industry competitors operate under roughly the same operational and price constraints," he says. "Using 3D printing to meet or exceed customer expectations can be an important differentiator."
Recognizing the widespread potential of 3D printing technologies, UPS's partnership with Fast Radius offers businesses the advantages without having to invest in equipment and expertise.
In one case, Smith mentions an engineer at a major pulp and paper company who needed 40 different brackets to house certain wiring. The engineer uploaded his design file to the Fast Radius website at 3:30 p.m. The 40 parts were delivered by 9:15 a.m. the next day. Smith credits the service to "our ability to print at large scale combined with the UPS distribution expertise."
The Fast Radius factory near the UPS Worldport® air hub in Louisville enables companies to order industrial-scale products or intricately designed components, many of which can be delivered the next day. Sixty The UPS Store® locations across the United States also offer 3D printing services.
UPS's Amling stresses the importance of looking at the big picture when considering 3D printing as part of a supply chain strategy. "If you look at 3D printing in isolation it won't necessarily seem a 'cheaper' option." He adds, "It's the related benefits that can create a net positive like reducing inventory, increasing uptime on your machines and winning more bids with faster service."
Riding a growing wave of demand, UPS and Fast Radius have expanded their capabilities in Asia and have plans to expand in Europe as well. Says Amling, "3D printing will not fully replace traditional subtractive manufacturing. But it's fast becoming a vital tactic for staying ahead of the competition."
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