One more product of 3D printing: supply chain disruption

Industrial-grade 3D printing moves production closer to the point of use, changing relationships among suppliers, customers and service providers.

History could repeat itself as 3D printing is poised to disrupt the supply chain much like email changed the way people communicate.

In the 1990s, people scoffed that email would replace sending letters through the U.S. Postal Service. Today, billions of emails travel the world every day as USPS struggles with lost revenue from first-class mail.

The degree to which supply chains could be impacted by 3D printing is only an educated guess at this point as the technology matures and companies come to understand how to make the best use of it. Industrial-grade 3D printing moves production closer to the point of use, changing relationships among suppliers, customers and service providers like transportation carriers.

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Disruptive technology poised to transform manufacturing

“3D printing – a technology that builds products layer by layer rather than milling or forming them from metal or plastic – is beginning to earn its place in everyday use at some of the world’s largest manufacturers. As the technology becomes more powerful and less expensive, the potential to locate small factories everywhere for everything from automobiles to fashion, even for a market of one, becomes a distinct possibility.”

Two important milestones in the long march toward a three- dimensional printing revolution were achieved in late 2012 with little or no fanfare. First, General Electric announced that it had purchased a small precision-engineering firm called Morris Technologies, based near Cincinnati, Ohio (USA), and planned to use the company’s 3D printing machines to make parts for jet engines. Then The Economist disclosed that researchers at EADS, the European aerospace group best known for building Airbus aircraft, were using 3D printers to make a titanium landing-gear bracket and planned to “print” the entire wing of an airliner. Both companies cited the fact that it is far more economical to build titanium parts one layer at a time than to carve them out of a solid block of the expensive metal, generating significant waste material.

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3D printing disrupting supply chains

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.

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.

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