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ASCM Insights

6 Predictions for the Future of 3D Printing


3D printing is quickly becoming a mature manufacturing technology. It’s useful for prototypes and offers significant benefits for small and medium-sized production runs. But just how much will 3D printing change manufacturing and supply chain — and how will the technology get there? 

What is 3D printing and what does it do? 

First, let’s define 3D printing: Also known as additive manufacturing, this technique is revolutionizing the supply chain landscape by offering on-demand production of customized parts and components. Imagine printing spare parts at your distribution center instead of waiting weeks for traditional manufacturing, or creating custom packaging solutions tailored to specific products, all without massive tooling costs. That's the power of 3D printing. It can streamline your supply chain by: 

  • Reducing dependence on traditional manufacturing: Print parts locally, minimizing lead times and transportation costs. 
  • Boosting inventory agility: Create custom items on-demand, eliminating the need for large, static inventories. 
  • Enhancing innovation: Prototype and iterate designs quickly and cheaply, accelerating time-to-market. 
  • Personalizing offerings: Adapt products to individual customer needs with bespoke printed components. 
  • Improving sustainability: Minimize waste and optimize material usage through additive manufacturing. 

As a supply chain professional, 3D printing is more than just a fascinating technology; it's a potential game-changer for optimizing your operations, reducing costs and boosting customer satisfaction.  

Now, with that understanding, here are six predictions about additive manufacturing's near future:

1. 3D printing will be bigger, faster and cheaper. 3D printing technologies are developing quickly. Rising demand for specialized materials to fulfil the required properties of end parts will continue to drive developments in the range and types of options available. The key for the new generation of printers, especially industrial-grade solutions, will be the ability to handle a greater range of advanced materials. This opens the door for businesses to benefit from additive manufacturing in areas where they previously could not.

Although machine costs remain high, increased print speed is pushing the price of parts down. As more and more businesses adopt 3D printing, these advancements will accelerate. With the addition of processes such as dual extrusion, the versatility of 3D printing is growing. As a result, 3D printing is being adopted in a wider range of industries. Another trend likely to significantly drive development is printing without the use of support structures, which again broadens the range of applications additive manufacturing can offer. In our eyes the potential for cost and time savings is high.

2. 3D printing will become part of an integrated supply chain approach. To maximize benefits, manufacturers need a large range of printers and materials and, importantly, connections with other industry professionals. Furthermore, interoperability among different systems is becoming important to maximize the potential of 3D printing. Automation in production and post-processing as well as in integrated usability will be important trends this year and beyond. Additive manufacturing can provide a whole new supply chain approach as part of a holistic and secure platform in which the individual steps are combined into one process, from concept to materials, digital inventory, production and delivery. As manufacturers strive toward Industry 5.0, services offering a fully automated, yet secure, platform will be essential.

3. Working together will continue to be imperative. Partnerships can create mutual benefits and synergies that lead to a greater product for customers. In 3D printing, this has proven to be a main enabler to scale industrial production. However, to progress further, there is a need for more holistic collaboration. Standards have to be developed, and printer and post-processing systems should be able to work together. In addition, shared production data can lead to improved printers and materials for all. Likewise, close collaborations are essential to achieving the best solution. An ecosystem where service providers, material producers and print farms worldwide are connected is the next step to building a better service.

4. There must be ways to provide quality and cybersecurity assurance. 3D printing continues to transform today’s industries, with companies adopting the technology for more and more of their needs, thereby giving rise to a more integrated production environment. However, for industrial production, businesses must be assured that their 3D printed parts will meet necessary quality requirements. Moreover, data ownership will play a crucial role. Intellectual property needs to stay in the right hands. As manufacturing progresses into the digital era, data management will be critical. In terms of quality assurance, it’s important to carefully select production partners, check their capabilities and ensure repeatable fit-for-purpose parts. Further steps are required to ensure design data is kept in the right hands. In addition, organizations must enforce manufacturing parameters by encrypting the data so the parts can only be produced in the requested amount and material. By collecting manufacturing data and analyzing it, mistakes can be detected quickly, improving the process and ensuring all quality requirements are met.

5. 3D printing will boost supply chain resilience. 3D printing has been used in the past as a solution to a variety of supply chain disruptions. As the technology develops, additive manufacturing’s role in solving these problems will only increase. Because 3D printing production can be situated closer to the consumer location, manufacturing organizations leveraging this technology can build shorter, stronger and more resilient supply chains. Physical inventory is the weak point in any supply chain. But with printing on-demand capability, inventory becomes digital. Engineers and manufacturers can send the design file to the 3D printer nearest the next step in the supply chain, whether it is the manufacturer receiving the component or the consumer receiving the final product. Then, there is less need to store and incrementally move inventory. Instead, parts can be printed and shipped the shortest practical distance, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions and boosting supply chain resilience.

6. Additive manufacturing will drive sustainability forward. Demands of end-customers, official regulations and even moral duty are making sustainable production and supply chains increasingly necessary. This trend also is present in 3D printing, which can reduce waste during production. By specifically designing a part for 3D printing, engineers can drastically decrease the weight of the end part, therefore reducing the material needed for production. Moreover, when 3D printing is used as part of an on-demand and decentralized digital warehouse, it can reduce the number of parts in inventory and the associated waste. Plus, by locating production closer to the next step in the supply chain, carbon dioxide emissions during transport are reduced. Moreover, there will be growth in sustainable 3D printing materials such as recycled, reusable and biodegradable plastics.

The future of 3D printing is bright, promising faster, more diverse, and more integrated production methods. By embracing these trends and prioritizing quality, security, and sustainability, this technology can revolutionize manufacturing and empower businesses to create a more resilient and responsible future. Take a deeper dive into this and other technology-related topics with the ASCM Supply Chain Technology Certificate. 

About the Author

János Váradi Chief Technology Officer and Cofounder, Replique

János Váradi is the chief technology officer and cofounder of BASF-owned Replique, which offers an industrial 3D printing platform that enables original equipment manufacturers to provide parts on-demand anytime and anywhere to their customers through a global, decentralized and secure 3D printing network.