Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Co-authored by Moustafa Moustafa and Simon Clark
Most people have heard of the 3D printer; a device that can realise the imaginative potential of the most creative of designers, whose users lauded the mantra ‘if you can imagine it, you can make it’.
3D printers appeared in the 1980s using a stereolithography (SLA) process for rapid prototyping solid parts from liquid resin. Since then, the technology has grown to include but not limited to: Finite Deposition Modelling (FDM) for making plastic prototypes to Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) for manufacturing metal components. 3D printers can come in a variety of sizes and prices from a few thousand for a desktop example up to hundreds of thousands for a large industrial machine.
As with many new technologies the aerospace and automotive industries were one of the first to add 3D printing to their broad arsenal of technologies, but have you ever asked yourself, would 3D printing enable me to print my own personal items at home, or create another source of income by printing parts for somebody else locally?
In this blog we:
Outline the impact 3D printing has had on industrial organisations and supply chains
Demonstrate further potential of 3D printing in today’s digital supply chains
Discuss the possibility of an Uber or Airbnb style 3D printing network business model for individuals who own their own desktop 3D printer
3D printing, a new link in traditional supply chains
Traditional supply chains involve factories importing materials and components from suppliers. Internal capabilities and processes then add value to these raw materials and components to convert them into products so they can be sold to customers. This age-old way of production has seen the birth of various manufacturing philosophies such as lean production and inventory management. The traditional thinking of factories being the nucleus of production can be completely disrupted by distributing production close to customers or where components are required. This has only recently been enabled with the advent of digital transformation in tandem with 3D printing.
Below are some key benefits of 3D printing compared to more traditional manufacturing methods and processes.
As mentioned in the introduction the automotive industry was an early adopter of 3D printing technologies. Below we share two very different examples where 3D printing has already started to make a positive impact on the automotive industry.
1. Koenigsegg, a Swedish manufacturer of high performance sports cars are known for pushing the boundaries when it comes to revolutionary manufacturing techniques. They use exotic materials such as carbon fibre and titanium. Subcontracting out the forging and milling of components from titanium is time consuming and expensive especially on low production runs such as Koenigsegg’s. So they turned to 3D printing of components out of titanium in-house which was faster, cheaper and provided significant flexibility in terms of design iterations.
2. In the world of higher volume vehicle production 3D printing also plays a role in reducing set up costs. 3D printing can be used to help designers by speeding up prototype fit and validation. 3D printing can improve assembly on the production line through 3D printed fixtures, jigs, and tools.
3D printing in today’s digital world
Today we have the ability to log into our email and cloud storage accounts from mobile phones, laptops or tablets. The ease with which we can now share files electronically has the potential to be replicated in the context of manufacturing physical components. Instead of having semi-complete components and assemblies transported from suppliers, the supply chain can take a completely digital infrastructure. Where necessary, parts can be downloaded from the cloud and into the organisation’s 3D printer at the location where assemblies and subassemblies are being built!
Two large 3D printing organisations, Formlabs and Carbon, have demonstrated the potential of 3D printers in supply chains in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many countries were facing a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and manufacturers were scrambling to meet demand. In a 3D printer supply network, instead of relying on suppliers across the globe, PPE design files can be shared with 3D printing hubs close to the hospitals where PPE is needed. This slashes lead times and secure jobs since production can be brought back to home soil. For Carbon, this digital and decentralised supply chain infrastructure reduced the design to production lead time of their PPE offering to just 20 days!
So how could 3D printing “print” me money?
Now, let’s bring this back to the average home and desktop sized 3D printer. For private individuals with 3D printers who wish to sell their services, this new digital 3D printed supply chain presents an opportunity for a two-sided network similar to Uber for mobility and Airbnb for accommodation. Being able to connect individuals that own 3D printers with customers is especially useful for a customer base who want certain items now and don’t want to wait until items become “back in stock” from traditional vendors.
Imagine if your car or washing machine breaks down. Instead of going to your original manufacturer for a spare part, someone locally with the right type of 3D printer can print and get the part to you (or a mechanic/engineer) in a short period of time. This is also good news for original component manufacturers. They would still receive revenue from any of their components which are printed as well as a huge opportunity to significantly cut costs from not having to manufacturing spare parts and managing inventory of both raw materials and finished goods.
Some 3D printing hub organisations already exist. 3dhubs.com provides an instant quote based on your design parameters, and has a vetting process when recruiting suppliers in their network to guarantee manufacturing quality whilst protecting customer’s designs through NDAs. However, they currently only recruit industrial grade 3D printing service providers and not private individuals who wish to provide 3D printing services from their desktop based 3D printers.
This distributed 3D printing network all sounds very exciting however, various barriers remain for a network of privately owned desktop 3D printers to become an effective and widespread business model.
Current barriers include:
Only certain component types can be printed on desktop 3D printers, mainly cosmetic or low strength items.
Chicken and egg scenario. There needs to be a critical mass of people requiring 3D printed parts vs making it worthwhile for people to go out and spend a few thousand pounds on such a desktop 3D printer.
Unit costs. Depending on the item in question the costs of 3D printing will need to fall to compete with traditional mass production and distribution models.
How many people actually know how to proficiently use CAD software to draw or fix CAD designs so that items will print correctly the first time?
Are original part manufacturers happy to share their “crown jewels” in terms of design drawings with individual 3D printing hubs?
What maintenance and audits will be required and by who to make sure 3D printers produce parts to the same dimensions and quality as designed?
What quality and safety standards will need to be adhered to for 3D printed parts per industry and or application? Current standards for additive manufacturing exist such as ISO/TC 261. Enforcing the standards across such a dispersed network of individuals could prove difficult.
If a 3D printed part were to fail where would the liability lie? In the original design, the material, type of 3D printer or technique used?
Are there more robust intellectual property protection systems which can be deployed besides NDAs?
To conclude, given the existing barriers, for now it seems a distributed 3D printing network business model is applicable for business to business needs through companies such as 3dhubs.com.
This decentralized way of producing components through an individual’s 3D printer in an Uber/Airbnb style business model has huge potential. When the identified challenges are addressed our world can be introduced to a whole new style of convenient, local, tailored, low carbon emission production, which is something we and especially the planet so desperately need.
Does your organisation use 3D printing?
If so for what type of components?
Do you own your own desktop 3D printer?
If you could 3D print anything what would it be?
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