The world is awash in difficulties and uncertainties for business these days. The U.S.-China trade war drags on, with painful tariffs taking a chunk out of profits. Brexit promises more uncertainty in all regards, not only for the U.K. but for all of its trading partners—in essence, the whole world. Iran’s shenanigans threaten yet another round of disruptions in the Middle East, so the price of oil, and transportation costs with it, could skyrocket at any moment.
What’s a business owner to do for relief?
One huge answer looks to be coming from the world of 3D printing, a.k.a. additive manufacturing (AM). While loads of ink have been spilled about the burgeoning revolution in how things are made thanks to this new technology (or really, sets of technologies), there’s a whole other aspect to it that’s largely been ignored. That is how it presents the possibility of shipping not parts or even finished goods across the world, but instead digital files. The results of that revolution could be even more staggering than those promised by the new production methods.
You see, with legacy manufacturing, barriers to entry are extremely high. Whether you’re talking about metal foundries or plastics injection molders or huge metal presses for stamped sheet metal, the machines and their infrastructure cost huge amounts and took up lots of space. AM turns those requirements on their head. While 3D printers aren’t cheap, they also don't cost tens of millions—or hundreds of millions, which is the case for some legacy manufacturing systems—of dollars. The result is that we’re already seeing the rise of distributed parts and goods manufacturing—service bureaus that print what’s ordered on demand.
Scott Sevcik, VP of Aerospace for Stratasys, one of the pioneering companies in 3D printing technology, explains why that’s so critical. “You don’t have to deal with import-export impacts if you have that distributed manufacturing capability,” he said. It comes down to having the ability to have local firms print the parts you need —or even complete finished goods—from files sent from anywhere in the world, and having them almost immediately where you need them, when you need them.
Those parts could be the things you need to keep your factory running. “Three or four years ago, I was talking to a customer about spare parts production,” said Sevcik. “He told me he has $2 billion in inventory sitting around the world, doing nothing. But he had to have inventory for each location – he couldn’t risk having a part he needed at a particular plant not getting through customs.” AM offers the ability to print spare parts on demand, so not only is there no customs delay, but costs are much lower because printers need ship only bulk raw materials, not finished parts. The technology could also drive manufacturing consistency. “Automotive manufacturers produce slightly different models for various markets around the world,” Sevkic explained. “AM could allow them to more completely standardize their designs and tooling, so they could use the exact same process wherever they’re producing. Not only would there be consistency in tooling, but in their parts as well.” This not only would allow sharing of expertise rather than hard goods across borders, but it’s been shown time and time again to improve product quality and reduce manufacturing costs.
Of course, production of final parts, assemblies, and finished goods is the holy grail of AM. With rapid improvements in speed and quality of the established 3D printing technologies, as well as ongoing development of new entrants to the market, full manufacturing capability is fast approaching for many existing needs. As 3D printers gain the ability to print in more and more materials, that ability to deliver full-scale manufacturing at scale will only improve.
One overarching concern with all this is the security of those digital files. The industry is already responding, with solution providers such as LEO Lane offering file-agnostic protection against unauthorized access, unauthorized print jobs or quantities, or even use of unapproved materials of construction. The SaaS protection even monitors finished part quality.
In the end, whether it’s tooling, spare parts, components or complete finished goods, AM promises to offer solutions to geopolitical turmoil that currently threatens the supply chains of pretty much everybody. Avi Reichental, Executive Chairman of XponentialWorks, a firm specializing in advanced manufacturing acceleration and consulting, as well as related product and company development, summed it up nicely. “Once you begin to view your inventory as digital files, tariffs and trade wars begin not to matter anymore,” he said. “They become irrelevant.”
Perhaps the Brave New World isn’t going to be quite so dystopian as we’d been led to believe.