Running a Leaner Operation with 3D Printing

Inventory management is a critical function for all businesses. Whether it be raw material, work in process, finished goods or non-stock items that are required for the business to run its operations (computers, office supplies, etc.), it not desirable to have too much or too little of what you need to run your business. In all areas of the supply chain, logistics, procurement, and manufacturing, companies try to use as little inventory as possible because of both the opportunity costs and physical costs of holding inventory.

So how can companies reduce their inventory levels and run a leaner operation? Companies for years have been investing in lean, just in time (JIT) systems to do this. However, JIT requires massive coordination between the OEM and its suppliers to ensure that a low inventory JIT system does not create parts shortages. It is a large effort that requires constant communication through the supply network to execute and companies are seeing the benefit by having more cash on hand that is not tied up in inventory. But now the question becomes, how can companies further reduce the inventory on the books, while still meeting their customer commitments? The answer looks more and more to be, with 3D printing. 3D print on-demand allows companies to produce the exact amount of product, exactly when they need it, lowering inventory levels and improving cash management.

What 3D Printing Can Already Do

3D printing has received a lot of attention in recent years, which has created some confusion on what 3D printing can already do and what challenges it still needs to overcome to be a viable option for any particular application. 3D printing has already made some dramatic inroads in the following areas:

  • New product development
  • Mass customization
  • High complexity
  • On-demand aftermarket parts

New Product Development

3D printing enables faster and more cost-effective prototyping, allowing companies to do more prototyping and reduce risk when bringing a product to market. Critically, 3D print on-demand can also provide components for low volume production, enabling companies to scale their supply more closely to their demand. Traditional manufacturing methods require companies to purchase in large batches, which imposes a lot of risk during the new product development cycle. In the case that a company invests in a large batch but then receives unfavorable feedback from the market or realizes a mistake in the design, the inventory must be scrapped. 3D print on-demand allows for lean low volume production and greater flexibility to accommodate the many changes that are characteristic of the new product development process.

Mass Customization

Mass customization with 3D printing gives companies the ability to cost effectively customize totally unique products for customers. MINI recently utilized 3D printing to customize the side scuttles for the BMW MINI. In comparison, customization with injection molding would be uneconomical due to the high cost of the tooling to produce the item.

High Complexity

With traditional fabrication methods such as machining, injection molding, or sheet metal forming (which both require machined tooling), high complexity means more cutting, which translates to longer machining time and higher cost, in addition to all the wasted material that must be subtracted to make the part or tool.

With 3D printing, the relationship between cost and complexity is not the same. In fact, due to the additive method of creating the parts, more complexity typically translates to less material and subsequently lower cost.

BMW recently utilized 3D printing to create this roof bracket for the 2018 BMW i8 Roadster. Topology optimization was used to create a complex geometry that minimized the weight and was 44% lighter than the original, non-3D printed design.

On-Demand Aftermarket Parts

Holding parts in inventory for aftermarket demand or running lower volume production runs for the aftermarket incurs additional costs for businesses. With 3D print on-demand, rather than having to hold physical products for aftermarket sales, companies can simply keep digital repositories of all parts and components that can be rapidly manufactured on-demand with 3D printing.

Dutch railway company, NS, is using 3D printing to reduce down-time when trains need replacement parts. NS is currently using 3D printing to produce 20 components with hopes increase this number to 50 by the end of 2018. In the past, when these parts would need to be replacement, it would be a months-long ordeal. With 3D printing, replacement parts can be supplied within a matter of days.

What Will 3D Printing Be Able To Do In The Future?

With all the things that 3D printing can do there are still many opportunities for 3D printing to add value by helping companies run leaner operations.

Soon, companies may reach a point, where, using 3D print on-demand, they can fulfill customer obligations without holding any component inventory. A customer will be able to place an order online and companies can route orders to a 3D printing service bureau who can manufacture and drop-ship products directly to customers. As the technology improves and new materials are added to the 3D printing arsenal, namely 3D printed metal alloys and premium composite materials, more and more products will be able to be manufactured and shipped on demand to customers. In many industries this is already a reality, but many opportunities remain for 3D printing to produce products faster and cheaper, with lower inventory levels.

Want to start running a leaner operation with 3D printing? Contact ZABFAB today to get started!

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