Insights / Supply Chain / Article

What 3D Printing Means for Your Supply Chain

May 19, 2016

Contributor: Christy Pettey

3D printing is going beyond prototyping to help transform the customer experience.

When you think of innovations that 3D printing has brought to the supply chain, dentistry might not be the first industry to spring to mind. But 3D printing is revolutionizing the manufacturing of custom transparent orthodontic braces and transforming the customer experience.

Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers are used to create Align Technologies’ patient-specific Invisalign aligners. Every day, 3D printing is used to produce 150,000 custom molds based on a 3D digital model of a patient's teeth, around which their braces are formed. These digital methods bring speed and agility to the process, which is made even more efficient by printing multiple molds simultaneously.


Courtesy of Align Technology

Courtesy of Align Technology

Such improvements in the customer experience are consistent with findings from a recent Gartner survey of 248 global supply chain professionals. The survey found that 29 percent of respondents view transformed customer experience and service as the primary value of 3D printing in the supply chain. The Gartner survey found that 65 percent of respondents are already using or will invest in 3D printing over the next two years as they discover innovative approaches to create products and augment manufacturing operations.

During Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference this week in Phoenix, Arizona, Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner, explained that a broader understanding of 3D printing's value to the supply chain is increasing investment plans across industries worldwide.

“ There is now more widespread acceptance of 3D printing which is having a near-term impact on supply chains.”

“Today, the early adopters are making investments in more expensive and capable 3D printers, while enterprises that are just beginning their 3D printing journeys will likely invest in desktop 3D printers and engage 3D print service bureaus to produce the first usable parts,” said Mr. Basiliere. “There is now more widespread acceptance of 3D printing which is having a near-term impact on supply chains, extending from third-party contract manufacturers to consumers worldwide.”

Prototyping remains the most common use of 3D printing, but the technology is being used beyond product development to produce component parts, finished goods and other items. For example, Airbus' A320 nacelle hinge bracket that attaches parts to an aircraft's fuselage was changed from its existing manufacturing process to 3D printing, resulting in weight savings that help the company meet its goals to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Courtesy of Airbus Group Innovations

Courtesy of Airbus Group Innovations

3D printing is also used to augment or support manufacturing operations with 3D-printed tools, jigs and fixtures. We are seeing early cases where line operators and mechanics are designing, and then 3D printing, custom tools that improve their operations. Although the customer experience is important, impacting bottom-line profit margins remains key to supply chain leaders, with 23 percent of those surveyed choosing efficiency as the primary value of 3D printing.

The bottom-line margin impact of 3D printing comes mostly from delivering agility and flexibility more cost-effectively and with a reduced lead time versus traditional manufacturing methods, such as machining, injection molding and casting. 3D printing allows for on-demand creation of a prototype, product or part once a 3D model is available. 

Gartner Supply Chain Symposium/Xpo™

Join the world's most important gathering of CSCOs, supply chain executives along with Gartner experts to transform and innovate your supply chain strategy.