Michael Minall of supply chain specialist Vendigital tells Engineering Capacity about the impact the 3D-printing revolution is starting to have on supply chains.
Easyjet’s announcement of its intention to use 3D printing to produce replacement cabin parts is further evidence that a technological revolution in the sector is gaining momentum. And it is already having a significant impact on supply chain and procurement strategies.
Michael Minall is Director and aerospace and defence sector specialist at Vendigital, a firm of procurement and supply chain specialists.
While the low-cost airline’s decision to use 3D printing to produce basic cabin parts, such as arm rests and other on-board features, is not a game-changing development in itself, it is a further sign that take-up of the technology is gaining momentum. At a time of significant downward pressure on prices and concern about production capacity, the announcement also sends a clear message to the supply chain that airlines are ready for change and are keen to benefit from the efficiencies such production methods can bring.
Contrary to what some say, 3D printing is not going to revolutionize the manufacturing sector, rendering traditional factories obsolete. The simple fact of the matter is the economics of 3D printing now and for the foreseeable future make it an unfeasible way to produce the vast majority of parts manufactured today. So instead of looking at it as a substitute for existing manufacturing, we should look to new areas where it can exploit its unique capabilities to complement traditional manufacturing processes.
Additive manufacturing, or “3D printing” as it is commonly known, has understandably captured the popular imagination: New materials that can be “printed” are announced virtually every day, and the most recent generation of printers can even print several materials at the same time, opening up new opportunities. Exciting applications have already been demonstrated across all sectors — from aerospace and medical applications to biotechnology and food production.
As the pharmaceutical industry shifts from mass manufacture towards personalised medicine, 3D printing could become part of the drug production line.
Imagine a paediatrician talking to a four-year-old child who is having trouble adjusting to taking daily doses of steroids after being diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy the previous month. “What’s your favourite animal?” she asks. “A zebra,” quietly replies the child, who we will call Sam. The paediatrician smiles as she makes a note on her office computer. “But not a black and white one, a blue and green one,” adds Sam, with a little more confidence. Later, the toddler watches with wide eyes as the uniquely coloured, zebra-like tablets appear from a three-dimensional (3D) printer in the hospital pharmacy.