Will Printing Bring Production Back Home?

A recent article over on Supply Chain Digest that asks how soon will “printed” parts revolutionize supply chains — and the world brings up a great discussion point when it notes that consumer product areas could be revolutionized by the approach and some people [are] wondering if the dynamics will, in some cases, lead to domestic digital production of some items versus offshore manufacturing in low cost countries. When you consider that 3-D printing is getting better, faster, and cheaper everyday and is already used to produce

  • aircraft titanium landing brackets
  • industrial gloves made out of nylon, stainless steel, or titanium
  • mobile-phone cases where the shape and colour is personalized for each user
  • dental crowns custom shaped to a patients mouth
  • medical implants

and that these printers can currently handle a wide range of materials including

  • plastics
  • glass
  • metal
  • ceramics
  • nylon

and that

  • 20% of the outputs are now finished products (and not just prototypes) and
  • 50% of the outputs are expected to be finished products by 2020

it makes a great case for moving to digital printing to keep costs down since the only costs are the cost of the machine, the room to put it in, the power to run it, the materials to feed it, and the engineer to come and do preventative maintenance after every X products. No HR costs for assembly workers and, most importantly, no exorbitant shipping costs, which are rising every day as the price of oil is now climbing again.

Plus, the ability to give each and every user a “custom” product without a price increase and still do mass production is enticing. It’s a great way to corner a market if your organization can do it first. And the supply chain can spend more time focussing on improving, and lowering the price of, raw material supply instead of renegotiating logistics contracts and battling fuel surcharges every six months. Furthermore, if a product can be printed faster than it can be air freighted half-way around the world, even if volumes are too high to be met entirely with a printing operation, it’s a great risk — and cost — mitigation strategy.