What is The Digital Supply Chain
Supply chain management is the process by which firms control, plan, and organize the flow of materials, information, and resources. Many supply chains are still filled with manual processes that lack visibility on products in the supply network. Coordination between factory cells and separate nodes in the supply chain are also largely done through manual processes. Digital supply chain is beginning to change all of this.
The digitization of supply chain is the transformation currently underway in which companies are utilizing automation, robotics, 5G communication, 3D printing, and big data to make supply chains more efficient. High tech digital tools are replacing manual processes and driving greater efficiencies. Highly automated factories can network with other nodes of the supply chain to enable real-time communication between machines. Sensors are utilized to gain data that can be processed and analyzed to make real-time decisions. All these digital tools combined can make a faster and more efficient system that can drive down cost and improve first-time quality.
Where Does 3D Printing Fit into the Digital Supply Chain
3D printing is the keystone that enables the true digitalization of supply chains. With 3D printing, products need only exist as digital files of technical data. Physical products are only created when the customer places an order. The goal of just-in-time inventory management is to receive inventory into the factory exactly when it is needed by the production line. However, in the just-in-time systems of the present, inventory still exists in the system, it is just sitting at the supplier rather than at the manufacturer’s site. With 3D printing, the product does not exist until it is needed. Products are manufactured on-demand only once an order is placed.
The implications of combining 3D printing with the digital supply chain are that consumers will have more products to choose from and more customization options. Companies will no longer be constrained by physical space because the CAD data for all the products is held in a digital repository that can be accessed anywhere. Mass customization of products then becomes possible as products that would normally need to be produced in mass to achieve competitive unit economics, could be produced in quantities of one and be unique to the individual user’s specifications.
3D printers can report data on the progress of a build, including the percent complete and length of time left on the build. New orders can simply be routed to an available machine that builds the product completely autonomously. Big data tools can then be used to track real-time status and analyze trends to efficiently balance supply and demand.
The Future of Supply Chain Management
5G communication, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, and automation will be key components in building the factory of the future; supply chain may also become shorter due to 3D printing. Components can be consolidated within an assembly and be built into a single unique shape. Fewer components will require fewer suppliers and shorter supply chains that can be geographically closer to the customers. The future of supply chain could be a network of satellite manufacturing sites dispersed across the customer base that are run fully autonomously and networked together with the point of sale system. Customers could order products in a web-based interface and the order would automatically route to an available 3D printer to manufacture the product on-demand.
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