Technology changes fast. And those technological changes have enormous (and often unanticipated) impacts on business.
For example, consider the development and rise of 3D printers, also known as additive manufacturing technologies (see links below). To build, for example, an airplane part using traditional techniques, one begins with metal, then either carves away the unwanted parts, or pours it into a mold. In contrast, to make an airplane part using additive technology, a 3D printer lays down successive layers of metal powder and binder, 100 micrometer (1/10 millimeter) thick, until the part is constructed from the bottom up.
3D printers have been in use in industry for some time. General Electric Aviation has been using 3D printing for creating airplane parts, and recently purchased their supplier, Morris Technologies.
But 3D printers have recently hit the mainstream.
3D printers can be purchased for the home, and have been used to manufacture jewelry, automotive parts, artificial hips, crowns and hearing aids. Staples now offers 3D printing services (see link below). Databases like Thingiverse allow the sharing of 3D printing plans. At the bleeding edge, 3D printers are printing hamburgers and artificial organs using stem cells.
What are the implications of 3D printing for manufacturing, operations management and inventory control? Where will the value be in the new value chain?
At UTA’s College of Business, faculty in our Operations Management program ponder and teach about innovations like these. Our instruction in inventory policy, for example, teaches students to balance the costs of running out of inventory with the costs of having too much inventory. This calculus will be significantly changed with 3D printing.
Greg Frazier, professor of information systems and department chair, believes the advantages of 3D printing will be quite significant, especially as 3D printers become more widely available and affordable to companies. “To minimize the impact of machine breakdowns, suppose a company keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars of replacement parts in stock because it may take many days or weeks to order and receive a replacement part,” Dr. Frazier says. “With 3D printing the company may be able to fabricate its own spare part within a few hours, drastically reducing the amount of spare parts inventory it must keep in stock.”
“Field service for equipment breakdowns is a similar application with huge cost-savings potential. Equipment located anywhere in the world could be repaired quickly on the spot by fabricating replacement parts on a portable 3D printer, rather than waiting on replacement parts sent from a spare parts warehouse in a different part of the world.”
A future with 3D printing may offer extraordinary advances to industries well beyond manufacturing, Dr. Frazier explains. “Applications of 3D printing can lead not only to dramatic cost savings, but also to reduced lead times and better customer service. Other potential applications abound including making custom dentures in a dentist office, making replacement parts for classic cars, or making custom fitted synthetic bones for hip replacements. All of these could be made quickly while the patient or customer waits.”
Associate Professor of Operations Management Alan Cannon conducts research in the areas of manufacturing strategy, competitive strategy implementation and organizational research methods. Dr. Cannon agrees that 3D printing’s potential could transform the supply chain industry, but perhaps not totally for the better. “On the one hand it promises a more responsive supply chain,” he says. “A firm will likely have more potential suppliers from which to choose because the technology itself is so inherently flexible. On the other hand that responsiveness is really going to ramp up the complexity. A firm may find itself dealing with much greater heterogeneity in its supply base because the technology allows for so many more candidate suppliers. For those who are in the business of 3D printing, you could easily envision them becoming little more than capacity marketers that focus primarily not on the printing but on the coordination and delivery of the orders. The whole idea of ‘what you make’ likely will become relatively less important than how you go about locating your capacity, either spatially or temporally, and how you control your customers’ access to it.”
Across UT Arlington, the presence of 3D printing is growing quickly. UTA’s Research Institute is equipped with the Viper Si2 3D Resin Printing System, which is available for research and development purposes. UTARI bio-medical technology researchers are using 3D printers to make molds for wound patches used in connection with the Biomask, a pliable polymer mask embedded with electrical, mechanical and biological components that can speed healing from disfiguring facial burns and help rebuild the faces of injured soldiers.
The College of Engineering and the School of Architecture also house 3D printers for faculty and student demonstration and modeling projects. Architecture utilizes 3D printing in demonstrations of digital fabrication as it applies to architectural design through the TOPOCAST_LAB, a joint effort between the design consultation firm TOPOCAST and the School of Architecture.
This is a fascinating topic, emblematic of the future of business. What do you think? How important will 3D printing be in the future of business? What other industries could be transformed? Comment and make your thoughts known!
Bloomberg View: Why 3D Printing Can Make the World a Better Place. Bloomberg Business Week. May 16, 2013.
New Balance Adopts 3D Printing To Create Hyper-Customized Track Shoes. By Andrew Liszewski. Gizmodo. March 13, 2013.
Will computers kill gun control? By Andrew Leonard. Salon. January 25, 2013.
Modern Meadow aims to print raw meat using bioprinter. By Katia Moskvitch. BBC. January 21, 2013.
Staples announces in-store 3-D printing service. By Mike Senese of Wired. CNN. December 1, 2012.
Solid print. The Economist. April 21, 2012.
The printed world. The Economist. February 10, 2011.
Jay Leno’s 3D Printer Replaces Rusty Old Parts. Popular Mechanics. June 8, 2009.
“Solid Visions: Exploring the possibilities of 3-D printing”. Entrepreneur. July 2014.
“Staples Wants to Bring 3-D Printing to the Masses”. Bloomberg Businessweek. April 10, 2014.
“Bioprinters: Printing a Bit of Me”. The Economist. March 8, 2014.