Could 3D Printing Support the Introduction of ‘Zero Length Supply Chains’?

Over the last six months the ‘3D printing’ industry has received significant coverage in the global media, commonly being described as the ‘the next big technology to hit the consumer market’. However this is not new technology, when I was studying at Cranfield University in 1992, a couple of PhD students were just starting their own business in this area. In the early 1990s, the technology was called ‘stereolithography’ or ‘rapid prototyping’ but it still used the same fundamental process of curing layers of polymer or plastic based materials to form the final shape of the object being produced.

From a business perspective 3D printing has revolutionised the manufacturing process and I for one believe that it is in the manufacturing sector rather than the consumer market where 3D printing will continue to see wide spread adoption. There are a number of issues which will prevent mass adoption across the general consumer market:

  • Even though the cost of 3D printing machines has come down considerably from when I was at University, the machines are still relatively expensive for household use
  • The platform used to create the 3D models is relatively small in size which will restrict the kind of models that can be produced
  • The technology comes from the manufacturing industry where engineers work tirelessly to create intricate 3D CAD models that can then be made in these machines. The average consumer will not have access to 3D CAD software on their home PC to design their own models. One option could be to use an outside design bureau to create the 3D model on the consumer’s behalf.
  • Without access to 3D CAD software, consumers could purchase a small 3D laser scanner to create an external representation of the shape they want to manufacture, but even this technology is not widely available to the general consumer
  • The only option that is really open to the consumer market at the moment is to download their 3D models from an online library or catalogue. This could be seen as being too restrictive and the lack of involvement with creating your own models will inevitably mean that ‘domestic’ 3D printing machines will be consigned to the back of the garage within no time at all.

So now that I have tried to bring a sense of reality to the proceedings in terms of how 3D printing will apply to the consumer market, let’s now take a look at what it could mean for the manufacturing industry.

For many years the aerospace and automotive industries have been using 3D printing technology to produce prototype parts. These ‘rapid prototype parts’ were being used as part of concept models to test form, fit and function before the final products were produced. Manufacturers have been making physical models of future products via wood and any other material that could be easily formed, for many years. For example one aerospace company in the UK made a complete wooden mock-up of their jet engines so that they could use it to test hydraulic pipe and wire harness runs. As 3D CAD modelling and visualisation technology improved so the need for wooden models started to disappear.

However 3D printing once again brings physical models into the limelight as they can potentially be used in the aftermarket sector, let me explain by way of a simple example. A small plastic housing on a hydraulic pump cracks, you identify the failed housing in an online 3D parts catalogue from the supplier, you then download the 3D model to your PC and then using the 3D printer at your office, you proceed to manufacture a replacement part, quickly and easily with no fuss at all. Clearly this process would only work for certain types of parts but the ability to download the 3D CAD models and then manufacture locally brings immense time and cost savings as part of the service management/replacement of critical components. No external supplier to deal with (in terms of manufacturing the replacement part), no need to wait for a logistics provider to deliver the part, bearing in mind the broken piece of equipment could be anywhere in the world and no waste of material as the 3D printer will only manufacturer an exact copy of the failed component. In fact one of the terms that I have heard recently to describe 3D printing technology, is ‘zero length supply chain’ which when you think about it nicely sums up the technology and perfectly fits this particular scenario.

To take this process one step further with the so called ‘Internet of Things’ gathering pace, what if a failed part is proactively identified using sensors on the equipment, ie differing flow rates (may be caused by a leak of fluids) outside a specific tolerance may highlight that the housing is about to fail. Information about the failed component is instantly relayed to a local 3D printer manufacturing hub which automatically downloads a 3D CAD model of the component and then proceeds to manufacture the ‘failed’ component before it actually fails, if you follow this! The first time the operator becomes aware of a potential problem is when they receive an automated email from the piece of equipment saying that a component is about to fail and a new part has been manufactured and is awaiting installation. Combining the Internet of Things with 3D printer technology has the potential to completely transform the management of serviceable machines such as power generation equipment for example. I will add one caveat to this in that 3D printer technology has until now really only been used at the rapid prototyping stage rather than really using for mass production of parts. But assuming that the 3D printers can produce parts to a repeatable quality, which meets various testing criteria, then there is no reason why the process I have outlined above could not one day become reality.

Now this may all sound far-fetched but a number of companies including GE Software, Cisco, IBM, Infineon and many others are working together to try and make the ‘Industrial Internet’ a reality. In fact, only a few weeks ago the top ten companies involved in making the Industrial Internet a reality formed an alliance which is to be sponsored by the US government. It wasn’t too long ago that real time, sensor controlled, intelligent, machine to machine communications was regarded as science fiction and here we are today investing billions of dollars to develop such internet connected technology. One thing is for sure, the global manufacturing industry is heading for exciting times! Speaking of the future, just after I drafted this blog entry I found a news item relating to a 3D fax machine. Imagine two 3D printing machines connected together but one has a built in 3D scanner. You place an object in one device, it is scanned, the 3D scan data is transmitted to the remote 3D printer and the object is then produced.

So how will B2B systems play a part in this new heavily automated world?, a world where the physical supply chain, in this example, almost disappears and all information is exchanged in an almost instantaneous, closed loop way. From a B2B perspective, how will remotely printed 3D parts be accounted for in an order management system and how will they be paid for?, how will 3D CAD models be exchanged securely from one location to another?, how will 3D CAD models be hosted in online catalogues, how will Big Data be exchanged between the machines and the central IT systems? and how will replaced parts be tracked and updated across an ERP platform?

So as you can see, B2B certainly has a part to play in this new and emerging area and the application of B2B in the world of 3D printing and the ‘Internet of Things’ is an area that I will expand upon in a future blog entry.

In the meantime and just to show how 3D printing has hit the news headlines this year, here are a few innovative examples of its use:

Full size, running replica of an Aston Martin DB4, consisting of thousands of small, 4 by 4 inch, 3D printed parts. The parts once glued together will form a mould from which a fibreglass body will be manufactured.

Buttercup the duck was born last year with a backward growing foot. The foot was amputated and a replacement foot was created using a 3D printer.

In early August, the space and electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk announced plans for a new rapid transport system called the Hyper Loop. Within hours the open source designs were downloaded and a 3D printed model of the proposed train and station platform were created

Mark Morley

As Director, Strategic Product Marketing for Business Network, Mark leads the product marketing efforts for B2B Managed Services, drives industry and regional alignment with overall Business Network product strategy and looks at how new disruptive technologies will impact future supply chains. Mark also has over 23 years industry experience across the discrete manufacturing sector.

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