With “disruption” becoming an increasing feature of supply chains, whose decision-makers have to find new ways to mitigate risks from it, supply chain innovation is now a key requirement for effective, efficient and economic success. The use of optimization tools has long been a feature of the area of inventory management, and now new technologies are advancing those further. MRO spare parts management often balances the need to hold stock on shelves with the locking-in of working capital. However, digital manufacturing, such as the use of 3D printing, is now proving to change that paradigm, allowing companies to ensure service levels without the financial constraints of the past. This article looks at how 3D printing helps with MRO spare parts management, and describes the first steps to adopt it.
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.
Since ‘Industry 4.0’ became part of our vernacular at the start of the decade, many manufacturers have found themselves at a crossroads: one route continuing tried and trusted traditional factory processes, and the second route offering the challenge of fully embracing the ‘digital factory’.
For many manufacturers, staying with their traditional processes might have appeared to be the best path. After all, the processes have been fine-tuned over a hundred or more years to achieve repeatability, part durability, efficient workflows and low operational costs.
While there is an advantage to maintaining this continuity, traditional processes are also challenged by high labour costs, errors leading to less than desired time-to-market, significant up-front production costs in the form of tooling and assembly costs.
With many manufacturers facing new marketplace demands for increased speed and agility, additive manufacturing (AM) gives an opportunity to transform manufacturing workflows, reduce supply chain issues and deliver a new competitive advantage.
“Digital inventory converted into physical inventory, as and when you need it, wherever you need and in the exact quantity required, equals true on-demand production with no waste.”
In my previous column, I discussed the benefits of virtual inventories and how, by pulling parts from a digital (rather than physical) inventory and then quickly and seamlessly 3D printing these parts, supply chain efficiencies can be significantly improved.
The benefits of additive manufacturing (AM) in conjunction with virtual inventories are further demonstrated in the enablement of on-demand manufacturing – most notably with respect to batch-size. In most traditional manufacturing technologies, the minimal batch size is quite large (tens- or hundreds- of thousands, and sometimes millions of items in a single manufacturing run). Think about it – with conventional production methods, there is a large cost of switching what the line produces and therefore manufacturers typically produce in one run for current and future expected future demands. This creates a physical inventory of spare parts that may or may not be used in the future. However, this is expensive to produce, store and manage, particularly when there is no guarantee the parts will actually be used.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years as makers, designers, hobbyists and more have gotten on board with the ability to build their own toys, devices, parts and more.
Now we are seeing a huge influx of industrial 3D printing companies and machines coming on line to support the digital supply chain. In industrial markets, 3D printing is getting buzz because of its potential to revolutionize manufacturing, allowing any company to produce almost anything, layer-by-layer through a single printer.
What began as a way to print plastic toys at home has turned into a big business. Aviation suppliers are using 3D printers to produce new parts such as wings or engines, the automotive industry prints replacement parts for cars, and healthcare produces body parts or new medical wearables. Even food production can be 3D-printed.
Materialise, a leading provider of additive manufacturing software and sophisticated 3D printing solutions, has partnered with winter sports gear and tailored footwear specialist Tailored Fits, to launch the world’s first end-to-end digital supply chain for custom-fit ski boots. The supply chain is supported by a customization platform for wearables, co-developed by Materialise and Tailored Fits, which includes a customer interface, design automation and process automation. Materialise also provides the entire production capacity for the certified additive manufacturing of the customized ski boots.
The solution co-created by the two companies already enables customers to have their feet scanned by Tailored Fits’ speciality sporting goods retailers in ten minutes, and receive individually tailored 3D printed boot insoles in under ten days, and will soon provide skiers with the option to fully customize either their ski boot liner or the entire ski boot for optimum comfort and performance