Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. military’s logistics system. But numerous hurdles stand in the way of that dream becoming reality, experts said.
Unlike the traditional manufacturing process, which creates items by taking raw materials and subtracting from them by drilling or whittling, additive manufacturing takes digital data and creates 3D objects by stacking printed layers of raw materials.
Brennan Hogan, a program manager at LMI — a Virginia-based not-for-profit corporation that is consulting with the Defense Logistics Agency about the implications of 3D printing — said additive manufacturing provides an opportunity for “turning the supply chain on its head.”
Put down your tools and throw away those molds — 3D printing means customized complex geometries can be produced en masse at a fraction of the cost.
From watch cases and spikes on running shoes, to rocket engine components and implants for the human body, 3D printers can be used to make virtually anything out of virtually anything. Materials are printed layer-by-layer into such intricate devices that designers and manufacturers are being forced to rethink their entire approach to construction.
3D printing is not just for tchotchkes anymore. Technological advancement paired with decreasing costs to build and/or purchase 3D printers create the perfect storm for the next industrial revolution. 3D printing technology will virtually transform the way companies conduct business, affecting manufacturing processes, disrupting the supply chain, and transforming primary and logistics businesses. Just as importantly, 3D printing, once it takes hold, will have substantial implications on intellectual property (“IP”): patents, copyrights and trademarks.
Analysts at Gartner predict that “[b]y 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.” Gartner Reveals Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, October 8, 2013. It is easy to imagine why. For example, today there are a number of “online maker sites.” On Shapeways, users can upload digital design files of products, which Shapeways uses to 3D print products and ship back to the users. Shapeways also hosts online “shops” for users to sell their 3D printed products. Through Thingiverse, users can download other users’ design files to print products or “remix” products by modifying a file or merging multiple files.
In 2013 researchers at Princeton University created a “bionic ear” – capable of detecting frequencies a million times higher than a human’s hearing range, and manufactured by blending biological tissues with electronics via a 3D printer. First invented in 1984, 3D printing is now capable of producing human organs and limbs, NASA rocket engine parts, car chassis, entire five-storey concrete houses and more. The possibilities are mind-boggling.
The design world has cottoned on to the possibilities of 3D printing too, using it to create everything from crockery to lampshades, while watchmakers have used the precision it affords to create intricate mechanisms and entire watch cases. But while there is a clutch of jewellers championing this new technology, others are disparaging about its use.
A researcher at the service’s Weapons and Materials Directorate lays out a vision for additive printers on the battlefield.
If you go by the Hype Cycle — Gartner’s annual tech-buzz assessment — then consumer 3D printing is about to tumble from the “peak of inflated expectations” into the “trough of disillusionment,” part of the coming five- to 10-year slog to the practical applications that await atop the “plateau of productivity.” But Larry “L.J.” Holmes, the principal investigator for materials and technology development in additive manufacturing at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, (ARL) isn’t waiting around for that.
In a presentation last month at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance summit, Holmes sketched out a variety of potential uses for 3D printing for the military, ranging from intelligence to communications to terraforming the battlefield. Here are a few highlights.
Euromold 2015 was an all-new conference and trade show in many ways, even though it is more than 20 years old. Euromold moved from Frankfurt to Düsseldorf and from November to September — but the biggest change was the increased emphasis on 3D printing.
Where once 3D printing was an interesting sideshow for a larger conference on molding and toolmaking, it is now the main event, with more than a third of all Euromold 2015 vendors active in additive manufacturing or other aspects of 3D printing. (The terms “additive manufacturing” and “3D printing” were used interchangeably during the conference.) The changes in date and location may have cost them a few trade show vendors (EOS and Stratasys were only represented by resellers), but the conference side of the event grew from one day hosted by Wohlers Associates to three days shared by Wohlers and the Society for Manufacturing Engineers (SME).
Even the strongest supply chain has a few weak links. Maybe yours are concentrated upstream, with small manufacturers that suffer from quality-control issues, or downstream, with retailers that have trouble getting products into customers’ hands on time. Either way, you may be able to bolster those links—or forge some alternatives—with the help of additive manufacturing.
In the last few years, additive manufacturing (commonly referred to as 3D printing) has moved far beyond its original prototyping applications to play an integral part in some companies’ product lines and production approaches.1 And, for many, its most useful role may turn out to be less in creating new products than in enhancing supply chain capabilities—or even innovating across whole sections of those supply chains.
Here, we look at the benefit of the still-developing technology for SMEs.
Earlier this week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first ever 3D-printed drug. Aside from being an astronomic breakthrough for the pharmaceutical industry, this news comes amid a flurry of similar stories; each demonstrating the growing potential and endless possibilities of 3D printing.
Upon its invention, 3D printing was limited in terms of its usability. Aside from architects building advanced 3D mock-ups, fashion designers producing radical new garment designs, and tech enthusiasts creating toys and other novelty bric-a-brac, the full potential of 3D printing took several months to materialise.
Surveys indicate that more than 30 percent of the top 300 largest global brands are now using or evaluating 3D printing (often with printing technology in-house) whether for prototyping and other innovation projects or in actual production of what they sell. Over 200 universities and colleges already offer 3D coursework in their curricula – covering aspects of not only 3D printing but also 3D scanning and design. To my mind, there is no question that 3D has reached, as Dartmouth’s Richard D’Aveni argues in a recent HBR article, a tipping point.
Even Terry Wohlers, founder of Wohlers Associates and publisher of the most cited research tracking the rise of 3D technology, is impressed. In a recent email exchange he told me: “We’re seeing a level of investment in 3D printing that we have not seen in the past — not even close.” As much of a champion as Wohlers is for the technology, he marvels at how the pace is picking up: “It’s really very interesting, and to some extent, mind-boggling, especially given that 3D printing has been around for morethan 25 years.”
From golf clubs to firearms, pharmaceuticals to trainers, 3D Printing is disrupting the manufacturing process of an increasing number of products. But what are the long-term implications for the supply chain as a whole?
It’s a common misconception that 3D printing is something new. Although the processes and thinking for it have been around for a number of years, it’s taken a while for the technology to catch up and allow wider functionality and usage.
As a procurement and supply chain professional, this opens up a world of possibilities – a world of potential cost savings as a result of lower manufacturing costs and a centralised supply chain. Of course this isn’t going to happen overnight, but organisations can start to think differently.