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  December 27th, 2016 | Written by

3D Printing to Disrupt Manufacturing Techniques

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  • DHL report identifies potential for new links in the supply chain.
  • Report: 3D printing will not become a substitute for mass production.
  • 3D printing will create new supply chain strategies and models.

DHL has been testing a variety of both 3D printing hardware and techniques for several years and has identified applications that have potential to redefine manufacturing and supply chain strategies. While the 3D printing market is estimated to grow between $180 billion and $490 billion by 2025, DHL’s latest DHL trend report finds it will not become a substitute for mass-production but a complementary process.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves manufacturing products by layering heated plastic or metal injected from the nozzle of a 3D printer onto a plate to create a three-dimensional object. The process has the potential of replacing processes such as forging and molding at a fraction of the cost. It can lead to improved product quality and new supply chain strategies and models.

3D printing has been adopted globally by the aviation, engineering, automotive, and healthcare industries. Mercedes Benz Trucks has launched a 3D printed spare parts service. In healthcare, 3D printing allied to scanners is creating custom-made external and internal items from prosthetics to dental crowns. It is also being used for autonomous production in remote environments, a sought-after service by mining companies, space agencies, and military organization to make spare parts.

3D printing “is not a magic bullet that will render factory mass production and manufacturing obsolete,” said Matthias Heutger, senior vice president, at DHL Customer Solutions and Innovation. “Its exciting potential lies more in its capability to simplify the production of highly complex and customizable products and spare parts—and this could bring logistics and manufacturing closer together than ever before.”

Factors currently limiting more widespread adoption of 3D printing include lack of management knowledge, economic and technological issues. Many printers can use only one material and costs are still high for industrial-grade 3D printers. As well as facing warranty, liability and intellectual property issues, 3D printing needs to become faster, more agile and more advanced before it can become a core production technology.

“Not all products should, can or will be 3D printed,” said Markus Kückelhaus, a DHL vice president. “But encouraged by opportunities for greater customization, less waste, and more localized manufacturing and delivery, companies across many industry verticals are showing increasing interest in using 3D printing. A recent survey revealed that 38 percent of companies anticipate using 3D printing in their serial production within five years but not necessarily to completely replace traditional manufacturing. We believe 3D printing will have the most impact in the medium term on logistics in spare parts and individualized parts manufacturing.”

The DHL report highlights opportunities for companies to team up with logistics providers offering 3D printing. These areas include spare parts on demand, a model that would cut enterprise storage costs; end-of-runway services for fast production of time-sensitive parts, and product postponement services, to increase customization options and simultaneously reduce lead time to the customer.

Individualized direct part manufacturing and product postponement services, both led by customer demand for individualized products, could see manufacturing and assembly divided into stages with regional or locally located printers involved in the final production. Both would require completely new supply chain strategies.

A major focus for end-of-runway services are sector-specific service offerings and integrated return and repair services; printing could be leveraged here to enable fast production and dispatch of parts. This would be invaluable to the energy, engineering and manufacturing sectors and could also improve warranty repair operations in the consumer sector too. Spare parts on demand could involve logistics companies in the supply chain in a revolutionary new way by printing the parts enroute to delivering them to the customer.

“As manufacturers adapt their production processes,” said Heutger, “new opportunities and challenges to the supply chain will be created.”