A recent article in the Jul/Aug edition of APICS Magazine points out where innovative businesses can score gains when it comes to the newest 3D printing technologies, often known as “additive manufacturing.” We’ll reprise their thinking briefly here, based on an article by Julie Kim and David Robb entitled “New Dimensions.”
3D printers use an “additive manufacturing process” to build objects layer upon layer. It’s appropriate when one or more of the following hold true:
- Customization is a key business strategy.
- Production volume requirements are low.
- Demand is constantly changing and difficult to predict.
- Remoteness leads to high transport costs and long lead times.
- The cost of traditional manufacturing makes for a significant barrier to entry.
Most of us only started hearing of 3D printing in the past couple of years. The idea that an object could be literally printed into existence seemed pretty exotic initially, but it’s fast becoming reality today. In their article, the authors point out “five key conditions that comprise an appropriate environment for implementing 3D printing technology as a manufacturing method.” These are:
- High level of customization. 3D printers have the ability to print highly complex geometric shapes with little to no impact on the cost of manufacturing a product. That’s mostly a function of raw material used. Production is efficient and economical with minimal machine configuration and the ability to switch between products rapidly.
- Low-volume production. Traditional manufacturing methods favor cost-efficient mass production. Today’s 3D printers produce slowly, building an object layer by layer, thus rendering themselves to small production volumes but with high levels of customization.
- Unpredictable demand. 3D printers require minimal reconfiguration and setup effort. They can switch between designs with little delay, and thus are highly useful in unpredictable environments, with minimal custom tooling or manual reconfiguration. Again, all this favors low-volume production environments.
- Remote distance to market. “3D printing enables simplification of the supply chain and can eliminate a large portion of the transportation and waiting time involved with offshoring,” note the article’s authors.
- High barriers to entry. Taking an idea and turning it into a physical product involves substantial investment, often at high cost. 3D printing offers an affordable alternative, both for prototypes and for a continuous (limited) run of finished goods.
3D printing allows for operational efficiency at some levels: while holding inventory can be costly, 3D printing has essentially the same cost per unit, regardless of how many units are produced. Thus, “pull” production systems tend to be more appropriate here, with the benefit of limited runs and avoiding of overloaded inventories.
3D printing is still a relatively new technology, the authors point out, yet to fulfill its full potential. But its promise of simpler entry to markets and the growing availability (and plunging costs) of 3D printers will provide benefits to many over time.