Think before you print

Disruptive technologies that will change our supply chains are in the news every day. These new possibilities are referred to as Supply Chain 4.0. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is one of the most frequently discussed technologies among the huge range of possibilities in SC 4.0. While it may be obvious where companies can apply 3D printing, yet, far too often firms fail to identify where 3D printing enhances a unique value proposition for their operations. An article by Professor Kai Hoberg and PhD student Jakob Heinen examines how companies can benefit from 3D printing by generating value from the new opportunities.

Professor Kai Hoberg and PhD candidate Jakob Heinen – both from KLU – and colleagues from the Universities of Oxford and Pittsburgh are taking a close look at the opportunities and challenges of 3D printing. They have come up with three steps that companies can take to generate value from 3D printing.

In step 1, companies assess the opportunities inherent in the 3D printing technology. The researchers see the main advantages of 3D printing in:

  • Enhancing product innovation in the design process and the actual design: 3D printing allows for a direct translation from design to manufactured product, enabling significant time savings for low volume products.
  • Embracing responsiveness and customization: Digitization facilitates obtaining customer input from remote locations, visualization of the product prior to production, and rapid translation of the customized design into the final product.
  • Reducing operational complexity: Eliminating the need for specialized dies, casts, and other equipment, 3D printing offers short set-up times, which is most beneficial for products characterized by low and infrequent demand.

In the next step, companies need to set clear boundaries for product customization. Embracing the customer as a co-creator in the design process, firms need to establish how external creativity will be leveraged to enhance responsiveness to market demand, yet at the same time, how they will retain control over key design and manufacturing choices.

Finally, in step 3, companies must decide whether they want to position 3D printing within their organization or rely on external production capacity. Hoberg and his colleagues highlight three possible answers to this question:

  • Develop in-house capability for designing and producing 3D-printed products. By investing in their own 3D printers users become operators of 3D printers.
  • Contract 3D printers to print products, especially ones requiring a special process or material.
  • Outsource 3D printing to a supply chain integrator. Adding to their core functions such as warehousing, transportation and MRO services, 3D printing services can extend their service portfolio.

In addition to a structured review of data base news releases associated with 3D printing, additive manufacturing and digital manufacturing, the researchers conducted interviews with senior managers and technical specialists that were actively engaged with different stages of the 3D printing value chain.

The full article by Kai Hoberg, Matthias Holweg (University of Oxford), Frits K. Pil (University of Pittsburgh), and Jakob Heinen has been published in The European Business Review.