What impact will 3d printing have on manufacturing and logistics?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing (the official term for production based on 3D technology), has been used by the automotive and aerospace industries to build prototypes for some time now, and over the last few years, 3D printing technologies have evolved at a rapid pace. Fashion designers, architects, artists, and food technicians are experimenting with it in their respective fields. The new technology’s potential seems almost boundless. Nike, for example, recently launched the first athletic shoe including 3D-printed components.
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3D print technology makes it possible to create nearly any geometric form with the help of design software – incorporating hollow spaces and filigree honeycomb structures, for example, that are much lighter than traditionally manufactured components, but offer the same stability. In medical technology, 3D printing has already achieved standards on a par with traditional manufacturing methods. Dental crowns, hip joint prosthetics, and customised hearing aid shells: 3D printing is used wherever “replacement parts” for the body are needed. The medical industry will see even more revolutionary developments in the years to come. Researchers are experimenting with the printing of human cells: artificial skin for burn victims, artificial ears, and artificial kidneys are no longer a utopian vision. A Swiss-made 3D printer is designed to manufacture lung tissue, and soon it will also print jawbone implants.
Manufacturers from all industry sectors are exploring which items they may be able to produce using 3D print technology, and logistics service providers are launching pilot projects to identify the need, potential and options for adjusting their business models to include 3D print services. Components manufactured with 3D printing offer the same safety and stability as the traditionally manufactured components they replace, but at a fraction of the weight. Integrating such components into finished aircraft, for example, helps save fuel and reduces CO2 emissions.
3D printing enables decentralisation, saving transport costs and driving down overall logistics expenses. It is also useful for small production batches or limited mass production, and for creating the required moulds for this type of manufacturing. In the future we may store replacement parts in virtual warehouses rather than distribution centres and print them based on demand, which would significantly reduce required storage space and resources. This may also provide the foundation for high-wage countries to “near shore” production back home following earlier outsourcing to low-wage countries, and saving customs duties based on electronic transmission of digital design plans for local production rather than importing the actual goods.
At this point in time, however, it is still unclear to what extent 3D printing is capable of outstripping traditional manufacturing and logistics processes, or even replacing them. Despite its potential, 3D print technology is also subject to limitations. To begin with, it cannot compete with the speed of traditional manufacturing processes and is not yet suitable for mass production. Plus, traditional processes for mass production are significantly cheaper than producing large quantities based on 3D print technology. Additionally, if products require smooth surfaces, they will need finishing following 3D print production, because it leaves a rough surface structure on objects made of synthetic fibres. Various product liability issues remain unresolved, too: if anyone can become a manufacturer or producer, who assumes liability when something breaks? 3D printing is still so young that the law lags behind on such issues.
On the regulatory side, 3D printing also has the potential to undermine control mechanisms that ensure products are safe and appropriate for the market. Customs authorities lose their oversight capabilities when goods are no longer transported across borders; they would not be able to conduct consumer protection or safety controls, or keep counterfeit goods off the market the way they do now.
With 3D printing, goods may no longer need to be shipped halfway around the world, because they can be printed close to the consumer. But this doesn’t mean that we will soon only be shipping raw materials and 3D print cartridges. Not quite yet. In fact, experts are sceptical that the technology will have much of an impact on global transport volumes in the near future. The trend toward custom production is currently more likely to boost “last-mile” shipping, i.e. the movement of goods from a transport hub to their final destination in the area.
But one thing is certain: The market share of 3D printing technology will increase and the trend toward customisation will continue. We will all benefit from the new technology’s ability to accommodate individual customer requests during production. Manufacturers will no longer keep large volumes of standardised products in stock, moving instead to a more flexible manufacturing model based on the “made to order” principle. The most likely outcome is that 3D printing will take its place alongside traditional production technologies, rather than replace them.
IMF: Variants Can Still Hurt Manufacturing Recovery
After a year of on-and-off manufacturing in the US, UK, and the eurozone, demand for goods surged early last week. Factories set growth records in April and May, suppliers started to recover, and US crude hit its highest price point since pre-COVID. As vaccination efforts immunise much of the US and UK populations, manufacturers are now able to fully ramp up their supply chains. In fact, GDP growth could approach double-digits by 2022.
Now, the ISM productivity measure has surpassed the 50-point mark that separates industry expansion from contraction. Since U.S. president Biden passed his US$1.9tn stimulus package and the UK purchasing managers index (PMI) increased to 65.6, both sides of the Atlantic are facing a much-welcomed manufacturing recovery.
Lingering Concerns Over COVID
Even as Spain, France, Italy, and Germany race to catch up, and mining companies pushed the FTSE 100 index of list shares to a monthly high of 7,129, some say that UK and US markets still suffer from a lack of confidence in raw material supplies. Yes, the Dow Jones has made up its 19,173-point crash of March 2020, and MSCI’s global stock index is at an all-time high.
Yet manufacturers around the world realise that these wins will be short-lived until pandemic supply chain bottlenecks are solved. If we keep the status quo, consumers will pay the price. In April, inflation in Germany reached 2.4%, and across the EU’s 19 member countries, overall prices have increased at an unusual pace. Some ask: Is this true recovery?
IMF: Current Boom Could Falter
Even as Elon Musk tweeted about chip shortages forcing Tesla to raise its prices, UK mining demand skyrocketed; housing markets lifted; and the pound sterling gained value. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, cautioned that manufacturing recovery won’t last long if COVID mutates into forms our vaccinations can’t touch. Kristalina Georgieva, Washington’s IMF director, noted that fewer than 1% of African citizens have been vaccinated: “Worldwide access to vaccines offers the best hope for stopping the coronavirus pandemic, saving lives, and securing a broad-based economic recovery”.
Across the globe, manufacturing companies are keeping a watchful eye on new developments in the spread of COVID. Though US FDA officials don’t think we’ll have to “start at square one” with new vaccines, the March 2021 World Economic Outlook states that “high uncertainty” surrounds the projected 6% global growth. Continued manufacturing success will in large part depend on “the path of the pandemic, the effectiveness of policy support, and the evolution of financial conditions”.
Mathias Cormann, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) concurred—without global immunisation, the estimated economic boom expected by 2025 could go kaput. “We need to...pursue an all-out effort to reach the entire world population”, Australia’s finance minister added. US$50bn to end COVID across the world, they imply, is a small investment to restart our economies.