3-D printing isn’t “Star Trek” transporter technology. It’s also not as simple as push, print, ta-da! And it also isn’t going to magically bring all manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
Despite these “limitations,” Eric Miller, principal and co-owner of Tempe, Arizona-based PADT Inc., asserts that what it is is the best way to make prototypes or low-volume or custom parts, and often the best way to handle your distributed manufacturing. If time to market matters, or if you only occasionally need to make a few otherwise outdated parts, it’s something your organization’s supply management group should look into. You can ship your CAD file of a product’s design around the world, then have the product printed locally without a staff of specialized experts.
“That’s a huge revolution,” Miller told attendees during his session on “3-D Printing and Supply Management” on May 4, 2015, in Phoenix as part of ISM2015.
3-D printing, or more accurately additive manufacturing, is a layered manufacturing process. It’s an alternative to extruding, forging, tooling, casting or otherwise machining parts.
He emphasized that supply management practitioners should treat 3-D printing like any other procurement buying process.
“As far as its supply chain impact goes, it’s just another manufacturing process,” Miller said.
“Consumables still need to be bought and managed,” he said, “Printers need ‘ink’ and specialized materials. You need to buy and maintain cleaning equipment, There’s a lot of inventory needed. You still need a solid plan to build your product, inspect and maintain quality control, and you need a process for handling scrap material. How and where will you store parts?”
If you’re asked to help outsource your organization’s 3-D printing process, you still need to consider:
- Supplier management
- Developing and maintaining specs for vendors
- A detailed ordering process
- Process specifications
- Acceptance criteria
- Delivery time lines, specifications and scheduling
- A back-up plan for downtime
- Quality control
- Intellectual property concerns
If you’re asked to help locate a 3-D printing company, you should follow the same process you’d use for any other supplier.
“Find three suppliers, have backups and vet them by giving them an actual part to build for you. Test their responsiveness to problems and deliveries,” Miller said, stressing the need to not treat this technology any different from any other technology.
In the future, 3-D printing does indeed hold the potential to bring us “the sci-fi version,” Miller added. Potential, world-changing manufacturing uses may include:
- 3-D printed building structures — “Imagine if FEMA had the ability to print concrete buildings and ‘tents’ worldwide,” Miller said.
- Personalized medicine — “There’s no reason doctors can’t scan and design a custom hip for a hip replacement,” Miller said.
- Clothing — “Right now, we make clothing the same way we did 500 years ago. 3-D printed clothing could change the garment industry worldwide overnight,” he said.
- Food — “This is the closest to ‘Star Trek,’” Miller laughed. “NASA has already made a 3-D printed pizza.” But, he added, “It was gross.”
- Machines on a nano scale — 3-D printing has the potential to manufacture machines and parts on a previously unimaginable small scale.
You can read more about 3-D printing in the March 2015 issue of Inside Supply Management®, in Mary Siegfried’s cover story, Could 3-D Printing Remold Your Supply Chain?