3D printing poised to upend supply chains… or is it?

© 2011 Bart Dring
© 2011 Bart Dring

3D printing, according to Wikipedia, “is a process of making a three dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model.”  The popularity of this process is growing, with applications in construction, industrial design and even fashion and jewelry.

According to Forbes, 3D printing is going to disrupt the supply chain, particularly that between between businesses and manufacturers, because printers provide users with “the power to print customized, single items quickly.”  In addition, 3D printing cuts manufacturing time, as product design, development and retooling can be done virtually — using data stored in the cloud, eliminating the time-worn process of shipping numerous iterations of physical prototypes back and forth.

Accordingly, the Forbes article suggests that the conventional global transportation dynamic is expected to change markedly, with a diminished demand for shipping, storage and handling of goods.

Not so fast, says Brian Proffitt, a University of Notre Dame professor, author, and technology expert.  In his article, “Surprise:  3D Printing Won’t Be Closing Any Factories Down,” Proffitt acknowledges the growth potential of 3D printing, but firmly believes that it will not replace traditional manufacturing on a large scale.  3D printers are limited since they can currently build only objects as one piece.

In order to create items with more than one part, a manufacturer will have to introduce some sort of assembly system, either human-driven or automated.  This assembly process will either involve printing separate parts and snapping them together, or removing the supports from a single printed device to create something that moves.

While single piece objects such as prototypes have great potential to circumvent conventional manufacturing and supply chain, the mass production of items with moveable parts will still need to rely on the standard manufacturing model that involving assembly lines and molding, and in most cases, labor.  And that manufacturing process necessarily relies on the traditional supply chain.

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