"3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
With that line in his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama helped elevate additive manufacturing into the forefront of industrial concern. Not that it wasn't already on its way.
According to the most recent Wohlers report on additive manufacturing, the 3-D printing industry increased 28.6% in 2012, expanding into a thriving $2.204 billion market. In 2013, fueled by support by the President, organizations like the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (NAMII) and an unprecedented buy-in from industrial companies throughout the sector, that market has continued to expand at an accelerated pace, well on its way to meeting Wohlers' target estimate of $5.2 billion by 2020.
This is not an overnight success, however.
Additive manufacturing has been changing the way we make things for nearly 30 years, ever since Chuck Hull invented stereolithography in 1986. Since then, the industry has worked through a slow evolution, diversifying into a wide, rich range of materials, processes and applications.
Additive manufacturing today can be used for printing anything from plastic trinkets on $500 machines to finished titanium component parts on systems that sell for over $1 million.
GE Aviation, for example, recently announced that in less than two years it will begin 3-D printing fuel nozzles to be used in its jet engines. Along with that, the machines and tools assembling that engine could include as many as 200 jigs and fixtures that are themselves products of 3-D printing.
So additive manufacturing is certainly changing the way we make things. But the real transformative power of the technology and its potential to, as President Obama said, change almost everything, is beyond simply the mechanics of the technology.
No, the real potential is to transform the way we go about manufacturing — disrupting the age-old supply chain and replacing it with something entirely new: a globally connected, local supply chain.
Razing the System
The promise of a 3-D printing-based supply chain is simple: "Additive manufacturing will democratize the manufacturing process." So says Ed Morris, director of NAMII, the federally-funded initiative set to define and promote the future of the industry.
"In terms of impact on inventory and logistics," he says, "you can print on demand. Meaning you don't have to have the finished product stacked on shelves or stacked in warehouses anymore."
Whenever you need a product, he explains, "you just make it. And that collapses the supply chain down to its simplest parts, adding new efficiencies to the system."
"You can print on demand, meaning you don't have to have the finished product stacked on shelves or stacked in warehouses anymore." -- Ed Morris, director of NAMII
Those efficiencies run the gamut of the supply chain, from the cost of distribution to assembly and carry, all the way to the component itself, all the while reducing scrap, maximizing customization and improving assembly cycle times.
Basically, Morris says, it tears the global supply chain apart and re-assembles it as a new, local system.
The traditional supply chain model is, of course, founded on traditional constraints of the industry—the efficiencies of mass production, the need for low-cost, high-volume assembly workers, real estate to house each stage of the process and so on.
But additive manufacturing bypasses those constraints.
3-D printing finds its value in the printing of low volume, customer-specific items—items that are capable of much greater complexity than is possible through traditional means. This includes hollow structures like GE's fuel nozzles that would normally be manufactured in pieces for later assembly.
This at once eliminates the need for both high volume production facilities and low level assembly workers, thereby cutting out at least half of the supply chain in a single blow.
From there, the efficiencies of that traditional model stop making sense—it is no longer financially efficient to send products zipping across the globe to get to the customer when manufacturing can take place almost anywhere at the same cost.
The raw materials today are digital files and the machines that make them are wired and connected, faster and more efficient than ever. And that demands a new model—a need to go local, globally.
Read the full story at mhlnews.com.