As the pharmaceutical industry shifts from mass manufacture towards personalised medicine, 3D printing could become part of the drug production line.
Imagine a paediatrician talking to a four-year-old child who is having trouble adjusting to taking daily doses of steroids after being diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy the previous month. “What’s your favourite animal?” she asks. “A zebra,” quietly replies the child, who we will call Sam. The paediatrician smiles as she makes a note on her office computer. “But not a black and white one, a blue and green one,” adds Sam, with a little more confidence. Later, the toddler watches with wide eyes as the uniquely coloured, zebra-like tablets appear from a three-dimensional (3D) printer in the hospital pharmacy.
Industrial 3-D printing is at a tipping point, about to go mainstream in a big way. Most executives and many engineers don’t realize it, but this technology has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling, trinkets, and toys. “Additive manufacturing” is creating durable and safe products for sale to real customers in moderate to large quantities.
The beginnings of the revolution show up in a 2014 PwC survey of more than 100 manufacturing companies. At the time of the survey, 11% had already switched to volume production of 3-D-printed parts or products. According to Gartner analysts, a technology is “mainstream” when it reaches an adoption level of 20%.
Machine spare part obsolescence is a major headache for manufacturers. The stockout costs or consequences of non-available spare parts are invariably higher with longer periods of downtime. As time equals money, in the majority of manufacturing operations maintenance staff take their own approaches to stock management. One such way is the squirrel approach where obsolete parts are gathered for insurance purposes. Some manufacturers look to rationalize their spare part stock profile and often target high-value slow-moving parts, which are usually also the obsolete parts.
Unfortunately the rapid developments in industrial automation have accelerated the obsolescence process, leading many companies to be caught short. But with the recent burst of 3D printers becoming more accessible to the masses, we have been asking ourselves if the dawn of the 3D printer will eventually make obsolescence obsolete. The advancement in 3D printing could well change the process in which spare parts are managed – if the International Space Station can use a 3D printer to print spare parts, why can’t any other manufacturer in the future?
Manufacturers across a broad spectrum of industries including automotive, aerospace, dental, discrete, high tech, and medical products are all actively piloting and using 3D printing technologies today. Prototyping continues to dominate the reasons why enterprises pursue 3D printing, with the opportunity of improving new product development and time-to-market being long-term goals.
Volvo Trucks is a global truck manufacturer based in Gothenburg, Sweden, owned by AB Volvo, and the company is the world’s second largest heavy-duty truck brand. The first Volvo truck was produced in 1928, and by 2011, the firm employed some 19,000 people around the world who manufacture and assemble trucks in 15 countries. The company produces and sells more than 100,000 units every year.
And now Stratasys says Volvo Trucks has decreased turnaround times of critical assembly line manufacturing tools by more than 94% since incorporating additive manufacturing technology into their engine production processes in Lyon, France.
3D printing has come a long way in an extremely short span of time. Initially built by Charles Hull in the 1980s as a tool for making basic polymer objects, today, the technology has spurred remarkable efforts in several manufacturing sectors; from building intricate aircraft and race car components, to human organs and prostheses.
Now, the wider business world is beginning to understand the potential of 3D printing for cost-effective, efficient and environmentally-friendly manufacturing. It is little wonder that analyst firm, Canalys see the global market for 3D printers reaching $16.2bn (£10.3bn) by 2018. With increasing adoption, the technology will revolutionise manufacturing as well as the supply chain and logistics processes which surround it.
At the same time that global hostilities mount, fiscal pressures weigh heavily on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) ability to confront them effectively and efficiently. The challenges are particularly acute in the DoD’s maintenance and supply chain enterprise.
The DoD’s extensive Maintenance Enterprise poses daunting risks (see sidebar, “The Department of Defense Maintenance Enterprise”). Maintenance needs are complex and highly unpredictable even in peacetime. The Department’s current operations require high levels of customization and production of parts in remote locations in low volumes and on tight timelines, imposing high entry barriers for suppliers of traditionally manufactured parts. The consequences are lower operational readiness and sortie rates, higher transportation costs, reduced process predictability, long lead times, and considerable excess inventory and waste.
3D printing has captured the imagination of the media and the financial markets; prognosticators are predicting a fundamental disruption in the manufacturing paradigm, from mass production to mass customization. Are we finally achieving the “lot size of one” that Taiichi Ohno envisioned when creating the Toyota Production System? Will factories disappear as the “maker movement” drives demand toward custom-designed items created on 3D printers in the home? How will these changes affect the industrial supply chains?
The answers are “yes,” “no,” and “profoundly…in certain cases.” As with many other new technologies, forecasters overhype the changes while naysayers ignore the potential. Ultimately, we expect to see fundamental shifts in some supply chains but not others. To understand the phenomenon and evade the hysteria, we need only look at the history of a recent disruption: e-commerce. The potential of the Internet was initially overhyped, yet it has had profound-but not overwhelming-effects on most supply chains.
The anxiety that 3D printing could lead to a new front in the war against counterfeiting and trademark infringement has increased exponentially this year, thanks to a predicted ‘explosion’ in the new technology due to the expiration of some key patents. Welcome new innovations could ease those worries but there is still much to be done.
3D printing and additive manufacturing technology is advancing at a startling rate, meaning more companies are introducing it as a means of cheaper and more efficient manufacturing. It also means much easier pirating of protected designs, as it requires just a digital 3D blueprint to be downloaded and printed to create an identical-looking copy. Gartner predicted earlier in the year that the emergence of 3D printing will create “major challenges” in relations to IP theft, predicting a loss “of at least $100 billion per year in IP globally” by 2018.