Executive IT Corner
with Biju Kewalram
I saw my first “3D Printer” in action nearly 12 years ago. The basics of the technology (called additive manufacturing) have been around since the 1980s.
I watched with fascination as a printer-like device, (albeit a very large printer), attached to a computer, slowly used a plastic raw material to construct a small model of a famous building. The degree of detail in the finished object, complete with all the architectural aspects of the original, was astounding.
I must confess to a failure of imagination as I recognized that I was seeing something that could potentially be a game changer later, but failed to realize just how diverse the applications could become.
Fast forward 12 years and almost all conceivable objects, from guns to guitars, and everything in between, are now capable of being “printed” at home. 3D Printers today are capable of architectural construction (components for residential construction), aerospace (NASA intends to manufacture spare parts as needed in space using 3D printing) and consumer items of a large variety.
At its most basic level, this is what you need to 3D print (or manufacture at home):
- 3D model. This is the “design” for the 3D object that you are intending to produce. The design or model can be obtained from the use of a computer-aided design software package, or through the use of a 3D scanner to first scan an object into a model. The number of smartphone apps that do this is growing every day. The data from the model describes the object which can then be reproduced by a 3D printer.
Increasingly, several 3D exchanges (Shapeways, Thingiverse and others) have emerged in recent years to make it easier for the average consumer to purchase a basic design and then customize to suit.
- 3D Printer. The “design” referred to above results in a special type of computer file that essentially means that the 3D image of the object gets “sliced” into thin layers. This is the design that the 3D printer interprets in laying down material until a finished object is produced. The raw material required for this is obtained from special distribution sources and inserted into the 3D printer at the time of printing. The precision of the technology means that highly complex and precise shapes can be produced.
This is where the biggest technological advances have occurred — as in all things technological, 3D printers have gotten smaller, faster and cheaper. There are now printers that manufacture printers. Companies dedicated to the supply of 3D printers have gone mainstream and even public. Companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys did incredibly well last year as the investing public saw the value in the future of this technology. Companies like Shapeways have set up bureaus so that the public can send in their designs and have their product manufactured and sent to them.
Mainstream office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot carry 3D printers from below $1,000 to $3,000, considerably more affordable than even five years
So, here’s the relevant question. Will this completely change manufacturing and supply chains? The answer is yes — and no.
While traditional, factory-based manufacturing carries a far lower per unit cost of production, the factory model operates on the basis of large quantities of the same product with little variation. 3D printing on the other hand offers faster production (within a few hours) of small runs and single item runs.
There is a growing trend towards companies, even in the traditional manufacturing space, mastering mass customization (the production of small run or even one-time product manufacture). As markets evolve towards this mass customization model, the basic premise of 3D printing is validated.
As 3D printers get more ubiquitous and business models like Shapeways, (the bureau providing high-end, one-time 3D printing) develop further, it is obvious that the trend towards more 3D printing adoption will continue.
Unique applications like dentistry and tissue generation in the medical field are made for the 3D world, as the products are infinitely unique — fitting one and only one person.
It is likely that the use of 3D printing in the near future will be confined to prototyping, specialized applications and highly customized manufacturing. The most explosive growth in the near future is likely to be in the online marketplaces for designs.
However, this technology is potentially disruptive to the logistics sector. Every supply chain best practice points to the need to keep inventory levels low. As 3D printing develops and becomes available closer to more consumers, it is the best enabler of a zero-inventory model, dramatically altering supply chains, disrupting the need for warehouses and potentially removing the need for transportation of some freight.
It is almost inevitable that there will be a growing disruptive trend from this technology over the coming decades. While it is foolhardy to predict the how and when any technology disruption
will occur (witness the delay in wide
adoption of RFID), it would be unwise to not keep a very careful eye on this technology trend.
It does not take a very big leap to imagine a day when most products are available through an online retailer like Amazon, infinitely customizable, designed on the fly by the consumer and ordered online during a lunch break — to be picked up on the way home from a 3D printing service located at the nearby gas station or in a franchised store. What is hard to predict is when that model might emerge.
Kewalram has spent decades developing freight forwarder and NVO information technology, and now provides systems consulting and training to logistics services providers. He can be reached by email.
This column was published in the September 2014 issue of American Shipper.