Is the Supply Chain Ready for 3D Printing?

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The Form 1 3D Printer

The word "printer" typically conjures up the image of a box-like machine that spits out flat, one-dimensional paper versions of what someone is looking at on his or her computer screen. That perception could shift over the next few years as 3D printing becomes more affordable and accessible for a larger number of users.

Traditionally priced at $10,000 and up, 3D printers turn digital models into three-dimensional objects. Those objects are made by "layering" plastic, metal, or other materials - a process that distinguishes 3D printing from machining equipment (which uses cutting and drilling techniques to "remove" materials).

It may not take long for more 3D printers to find their way onto the manufacturing floor or design lab. In Five Technology Trends to Watch, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) put 3D printing at the top of its 2013 list. Quoting a Wohlers Associates report, the CEA says that the market for 3D printing will reach $3.7 billion by 2015, up from $1.7 billion. The top industry currently served by 3D printing firms is consumer products/ electronics at 20.3 percent, followed by the motor vehicle (19.5 percent) and medical/dental (15.1 percent) industries, according to Wohlers.

As 3D printing gains in popularity, its applicability will likely surpass the engineers and inventors who use it to create prototypes. In his recent blog post, What Could 3D Printing Mean for the Supply Chain?, for example, Andrew Bell of Kinaxis pondered the technology's impact on the classic supply chain.

Bell sees local manufacturing (more things will be made closer to their final destinations); customizability (it will be easier, faster, and more efficient for companies to provide made-to-order products to their end users); and distribution of raw materials (the 3D printers will require raw materials in order to produce the final product) as the top three supply chain links that could be impacted by 3D printing.

On the affordability front, companies like Form 1 are promising to release lower-cost equipment to the world in the near future. Last year Form 1 raised $2.95 million via online funding platform Kickstarter to bring its "affordable, high-resolution 3D printer for professional creators" to market.

Whether a consumer will ever be able to use a 3D printer to order and "make" a pair of pants, a snowboard, or a new car remains to be seen, but one thing is certain:  if the expert predictions are on target, the use of 3D printing will expand over the next two years to include more industries and applications.

For more of a primer on 3D printing today and its future uses and applications, you may want to check out the video The 3D Printing Revolution.

About Bridget McCrea

Bridget McCrea covers business and technology topics for various publications. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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