Raw intelligence: How 3D printing is transforming supply chains

This three-part series starts from a basic insight: through advances in digital manufacturing, raw materials are fast becoming intelligent assets. Thought of another way, material flows are becoming information flows. Here we will explore the implications for the circular economy. In part one we investigated the technological advances that are encoding intelligence into materials. Part two explored the trends in storing, communicating, and using materials data. In part three we explore the impact on supply chains and business ecosystems that result, and discuss the business models that stand to benefit from emerging trends.

If materials are becoming intelligent assets in digital fabrication, we must understand how businesses are creating value from this. After exploring the growth in production and access to data on materials in a previous article, now it’s time to look at how new, platform-type business models are mediating the production of goods, and the implications this may have for circular economy aims.

Digital fabrication processes like 3D printing are ‘software-defined’, meaning the production process is driven by digital data.1 Compared to the hard-wired capital costs of setting up an assembly line optimised to produce thousands of the same object, a 3D printer can be reprogrammed at a keystroke to produce a different object with near zero costs. Unlike mass manufacturing, the set up costs of digital fabrication are comparatively low and the process inexpensive to alter. Because of this flexibility, digital fabrication enables a greater variety of products to be made per unit of capital investment.

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