3D printing is closing the door on physical warehouses

3D printing is set to make space-hungry centralised storage centres a thing of the past for many products, and eliminate the need for expensive distribution systems.

In the not too distant future, manufacturing may no longer be associated with warehouses filled with stacks of finished products waiting for shipment. Instead, on-demand 3D printing which requires little storage space will allow manufacturers to generate parts to order and reduce overheads by moving production closer to the intended market, shortening the length of the supply chain.

Empty warehouse

The technology is also well suited for low-volume and customised products, particularly replacement parts. Shifting this sort of work from factory floors to 3D printers would free up manufacturers to focus their time, energy and talents on other goods. What part does a digital warehouse play in this transition, where do you begin creating one, and how can industry help to pave the way?

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3D print flexibility beats Brexit

Chris Elsworthy, CEL-UK’s managing director and lead mechanical engineer reveals how scalable 3D printing can give aerospace manufacturers the flexibility they need ahead of Brexit.

3D print flexibility beats Brexit

Aerospace manufacturing, like many other industries in the UK, is facing uncertainty due to the global political climate and of course, Brexit. However, troubles with financial strains and political uncertainty are, to an extent, nothing new and can, as ever, be overcome by effective planning. This is where scalable 3D printing can play a leading role.

Virtually every field of aerospace manufacturing, from R&D through to maintenance, has always experienced some sort of delays. Holdups can be due to a multitude of reasons, from custom borders and transport issues through to supply, and while they can be difficult to predict, many of these delays could be overcome by 3D printing.

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Could airports be the next hubs for disruptive 3D printing?

Is manufacturing really slowing down or is it undergoing a transformation that can not yet be measured by traditional means? Robotics, drones, augmented reality and other technologies are transforming manufacturing in such a way not seen since the Industrial Revolution. But, in my opinion, one of the most disruptive forces is 3D printing. Not only could it disrupt the actual manufacturing process, but also manufacturing’s supply chain requirements with respect to inventory and transportation.  

3D printing hubs, if strategically located, could speed up delivery times and improve efficiencies while bypassing various political risks and trade barriers. Some stakeholders are already experimenting with the use of this technology, and airports may present an attractive hub for the technology given their position and connectivity to various supply chains. 

Many manufacturers including Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Boeing and Airbus have embraced 3D printing for years, often printing prototypes and hard to locate parts. Logistics and transportation providers including DB Schenker and UPS have also embraced 3D printing with DB Schenker, for example, offering customers the ability to upload their 3D templates, choose the material and color, view prices, order printing and arrange delivery. DB Schenker utilizes a partner network of startups and established firms for 3D printing and then DB Schenker delivers the items.  

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Byte your inventory and beat the system

All in all, if you’re a supply chain manager not already harnessing the benefits of AM, then it’s worth taking a closer look at what the technology can do for you. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

In a previous column, I discussed the basic advantages and challenges of additive manufacturing (AM, a.k.a. 3D printing) when it comes to the supply chain. We centered around the main characteristics of AM technology, namely production one layer at a time, on demand, and with a minimum batch size of just one. One of the main game changers that AM enables is virtual inventory and this piece will delve a bit deeper into this aspect as well as its implications in today’s complex and volatile geopolitical climate.

In traditional supply chains the parts are kept physically in inventory after they have been manufactured and passed QA. The costs and issues surrounding storing large amounts of physical inventory are very familiar to supply chain managers. Conversely, with virtual inventory, items are kept digitally until they are ordered. When an order arrives, the item is retrieved from the virtual inventory and additively manufactured. Then, the resulting (physical) item can join the existing logistics set up and be delivered to its final destination, as with the physical inventory case. Holding your inventory in digital files rather than physical items and producing them on demand, close to the demand, using AM, has been called Distributed Additive Manufacturing (DAM) and it presents many benefits.

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3D printing and defence: Leading militaries named

The 3D printing industry was worth $3bn in 2013 and grew to $7bn in 2017. GlobalData forecasts the 3D printing market to account for more than $20bn in spend by 2025.

3d printing defence

As 3D printing develops it is now starting to be realised in a wide variety of industries, but its potential in the aerospace and defence industry is significant and most major militaries and companies are exploring their options with the technology.

Some are still in the testing phase, while others are actually deploying the technology in final production. This is particularly true in the aerospace industry, where engines, aircraft and even satellites are using 3D printed components at present.

Listed below are the militaries that have taken an early lead in implementing 3D printing technology, as identified by GlobalData.

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3D printing system used to accelerate tissue engineering research at The University of Sheffield

Formlabs, a 3D printing system manufacturer, and Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala, Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, have developed a 3D printing technique for complex artificial blood vessels which can aid surgery for cardiovascular disease.

Conventional surgical treatments for cardiovascular disease rely on autografts, which require invasive surgery. Synthetic vascular grafts made from polymer materials are also available, but these are prone to infection and blood clotting, especially in smaller diameter vessels. A new technique is needed, and this is where tissue engineering fits in, enabling new blood vessels to be grown in the lab and then used for implantation.

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How SA can build on 3D printing

Last year, the Ramdani family in France, became the first in the world to move into a three-dimensionally-printed house.

A team of scientists and architects designed their comfy 95m² home in a studio, with the design programmed into a 3D printer. This was then brought to the site of the home and printed in layers from the floor upwards. After just 54 hours, the Ramdani family had a new four-bedroomed home.

But France isn’t the only country, which has embraced 3D technology to solve its housing issues.

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