How 3D printing can affect your supply chain

3D printing has been used for prototyping for decades, but now it’s starting to creep into production process too. Even if you’re not printing things yourself, that change is going to have implications for your supply chain management.

What’s different about 3D printing and other additive manufacturing processes

When you think about 3D printing, you might visualize a filament of molten plastic being squirted, toothpaste-like, out of a nozzle, building up an object layer by layer as it solidifies.

Technically, that approach is termed fused deposition modeling but more generally we might talk of additive manufacturing, in which the layers can also be built up by fusing powdered metal or plastic (selective laser sintering) or solidifying a liquid using ultraviolet light (stereolithography or continuous liquid interface production), then lifting the finished object out of the unused powder or liquid.

Although these techniques are radically different from one another in approach, and in the characteristics of the pieces they can produce, they share a number of important characteristics that sets them apart from traditional manufacturing techniques:

- Tooling is not specific to the piece being manufactured: In theory, they could be making a part for an aircraft one minute, and for a food mixer the next. Changing from one to the other doesn’t require a fresh mold, or a different cutting tool, just an appropriate design file.

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