3D Printing and Future Supply Chain 3D Printing and Future Supply Chain

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3D Printing and the Future Supply Chain


3D Printing and Future Supply Chain 3D Printing and Future Supply Chain

Unprecedented global supply chain challenges have caused companies across a range of industries to rethink how they source and manufacture parts and products. One solution is found in the rapid evolution of 3D printing. What once was considered science fiction is quickly becoming commonplace as 3D printing is filling in production gaps and helping ease supply chain disruptions in various industries worldwide.

While not all parts and products can be 3D printed, it's essential to understand how 3D printing—also called additive manufacturing—can benefit your manufacturing and supply chain strategies. According to the Hubs Supply Chain Resilience Report, while COVID-19 has been the single biggest disruptive event of the past decade, material shortages were the most disruptive factor of 2021. Additionally, 57% of companies in the report believe that diversifying their manufacturing supply is the best way to prevent future disruptions.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Additive manufacturing involves making an object by depositing material, one tiny layer at a time. Just like an inkjet printer makes individual dots of ink to create an image, a 3D printer uses a digital file to only add material where it is needed.  

3D-printed objects start with a digital blueprint created using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Once the blueprint is ready, a worker gathers the filaments and other raw materials, fills the printer, prepares the 3D platform and starts the printer. A physical object is printed layer by layer by the CAD software blueprint until it's finished. In other additive manufacturing processes, an electron beam or laser selectively melts a bed of powdered material. When materials cool, they fuse together to form a three-dimensional object. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the entire 3D printing process can vary from minutes to days.

Evolving 3D Printing Technology 

The first 3D printer was invented in 1987 and cost $300,000, notes 3D Printing Industry. That would be $650,000 in today's dollars. But evolving technology has brought prices down and made the practice more accessible and versatile.

The Department of Energy reports 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing industry, allowing companies to design and produce products in new ways while also reducing material waste, saving energy and shortening the time needed to bring products to market. In fact, a 2014 report by MIT researchers predicted that 3D printing had the potential to cut total supply chain costs by 50-90%, with the most significant savings coming from transportation costs as companies begin to shift production locally. The only pitfall they suggested was that 3D printing was slower and better suited for low-volume production. However, that view has shifted in recent years as technologies have improved, starting a new era of high-volume 3D printing. Now, 3D printing enables companies to produce almost anything, layer by layer, from a single 3D printer.

3D printers use different technologies and printing methods, but a report from Deloitte lists four common 3D printing processes as:

Sheet lamination: Binds thinly layered sheets of metals or plastics using welding or an adhesive. The desired object is cut by laser or blade. This 3D printing technology is also referred to as laminated object manufacturing (LOM) or ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM).

Extrusion deposition: Selectively deposits material by moving across the X-Y and Z axes as build material on a coil is melted by a heated extrusion nozzle. This 3D printing technology is often called fused deposition modeling (FDM) or plastic jet printing (PJP).

Granular materials binding: Fuses or binds a granular material in a powder bed to form a solid shape layer by layer using a laser or a print head. This 3D printing technology is used in selective laser melting (SLM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), electronic beam melting (EBM) and binder jetting.

Light polymerization: Uses ultraviolet light to convert drops of liquid plastic or resin into a solid shape through a curing process. Some 3D printing processes using this technology are digital light processing, stereolithography (SLA), polyjet and film transfer imaging.

The number of materials used in 3D printing is also constantly expanding. According to McKinsey, a wide range of new plastics has been developed, including machines and processes for printing with a variety of materials including glass, wood, cement and even living cells.  

3D printing is also helping to create more sustainable supply chains. When compared against traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing helps reduce resource waste in several ways, including material recycling, lowering energy consumption and reducing emissions. According to the Professional Safety Journal, additive manufacturing techniques are estimated to be as much as 97% material efficient, compared to subtractive technology, which can generate up to 90% waste. Additionally, the Energy Policy Journal reports that, depending on the scenario, additive manufacturing can lead to an estimated 5% to 27% reduction in world energy consumption in 2050.

Additive Manufacturing Applications

3D printing and on-demand additive manufacturing are quickly changing how products are designed, built, distributed, sold, and serviced. Parts that were once only made through molding can now be made through 3D printing whenever the lead time is tight or the usual supply is disrupted.   

Typical 3D printing applications include: 

  • Healthcare: 3D printers can reproduce implants, surgical tools, hearing aids, prostheses and dental veneers.
  • Automotive industry and spare parts: Automotive and aeronautics companies use 3D printers in prototyping and their production processes quickly and economically creating parts and various components.
  • Construction: 3D printing helps generate prototypes and structures to assist in constructing bridges, buildings and even entire single-family homes.
  • Aerospace: 3D printed parts are helping reduce the number of aircraft components, contributing to lower flight weight and reduced fuel charges.
  • Food industry: Multi-nozzle 3D printers are helping food manufacturers make intricate cake decorations, chocolate delicacies and other novel culinary items. 3D printed food can be customized according to nutritional needs and food allergies.
  • K-12 schools: 3D printing is a teaching tool for advanced design and manufacturing technologies.

3D Printing During COVID-19 Pandemic

Helping companies produce customized parts on-demand — quickly and locally — the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many benefits of 3D printing. Additive manufacturing technology has been essential during the pandemic enabling the rapid design and production of critical medical parts, which can be printed using digital files and sent immediately to medical professionals, helping to relieve critical supply chain gaps.  

3D Printing Considerations 

While integrating 3D printing into manufacturing operations has helped increase local production and supply chain resiliency, adoption has been limited. However, 46% of companies surveyed by EY in 2019 expect to apply 3D printing technology for end-part production by 2022. From industry leaders to small businesses owners, many are crediting additive manufacturing for helping to fight the global pandemic—signaling this could be a turning point for more widespread adoption of 3D printing.  

In a 2021 TCT Magazine round table on 3D printing and the supply chain, industry experts noted several advantages of 3D printing, including:  

  • Reduced tooling costs: Additive manufacturing does not require a mold or cutting tools. All users need to make a part is the design file and proper material, enabling production cycles to be customized and shortened, helping reduce inventory and scrap.   
  • Virtual inventory: Digital inventory helps create a more flexible supply chain by holding digital assets in stock and producing on-demand, usually with additive manufacturing, when the item is ordered.
  • More customizable products: On-demand part manufacturing and smaller batch sizes allow greater personalization levels to help meet individual customer needs.
  • Less waste: Additive manufacturing's on-demand characteristics help conserve resources by reducing the amount of material used. Items can also be distributed just-in-time, making better use of the materials already in the system reducing waste.
  • Smaller storage needs: On-demand additive manufacturing helps lower storage costs because you only store the materials required and just-finished products for a short time before sending to customers
  • Broader design capabilities: 3D printing allows manufacturers to create new shapes and lighter parts that use less raw material and require fewer manufacturing steps.   
  • Re-shoring manufacturing: With traditional production, products had to go through multiple phases before reaching end customers. In contrast, 3D printing is flexible and portable, allowing companies to manufacture products closer to home or in more centralized regions.
  • Flexible on-time deliveries: 3D printers help simplify complex manufacturing processes, allowing companies to produce items more quickly and deliver them in the shortest time possible.
  • Reduced labor costs: The increased production automation through 3D printing can help reduce labor costs.    

Despite the many advantages of 3D printing for various industries, the technology also comes with some drawbacks: 

  • Evolving technology: 3D printing applications and functions are being explored and developed. There is a growing need for more widespread standards across the industry.
  • Intellectual property risks: Virtual inventory helps make supply chains more flexible; however, if an unauthorized individual acquires the digital instructions to make a part, they could steal a companies' intellectual property, significantly affecting the company's overall value.  
  • Limited product size: Items are manufactured in one size or another according to the capacity of each 3D printer model.
  • Printing times: The 3D printing process can range from 10 minutes to days, depending on the size of the printed item and the capacity of the 3D printer. 3D printed parts also need time to cool off.
  • Safety concerns: According to the NIOSH Science Blog, 3D printing manufacturers use different materials and technologies and electrical machinery that puts them at risk for inhaling dangerous VOCs, ultraviolet exposure, burns, and more.  
  • Product standardization: 3D printing's digital aspects present additional factors to consider, from using data formats to maintain consistency to design and production process guidelines to help ensure product quality. Many countries do not recognize 3D printed products as an acceptable manufacturing process, so highly regulated industries might need to wait longer before adopting additive manufacturing.  
  • New technical skills needed: Additive manufacturing involves more than a 3D printer. Companies also need people with the technical skills to go with it.   

Learn more about Grainger's manufacturing supplies and solutions to help you tackle safety, increase productivity and protect your business from costly downtime.


The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.