Few manufacturing innovations have received as much attention in recent years as 3D printing.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing describes a process whereby a machine lays down successive layers of metal, plastic or other materials to create an object. The concept represents a sharp departure from the standard assembly line, which consists of multiple stations through which a manufactured product must pass.
The automotive industry is just one sector in which 3D printing promises to have a huge impact. Manufacturers believe it will bring down production costs, while boosting their ability to customize product and turn out individual items on an “on-demand” basis.
But 3D printing isn’t a replacement for traditional mass-production methods. It has little applicability where high volumes of product are required, says Steven R. Murray, lead auditor with the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC). The real value of the technology lies in the aftermarket, which often deals in hard-to-find parts for older vehicles. With 3D printers on hand, the very notion of an obsolete part might itself become obsolete.
In the long run, 3D printing will “dismantle several supply chains,” says Simon Jacobsen, vice president with Gartner. It will slash both production time and delivery cost – provided that manufacturers can successfully match supply with demand. It’s essential that they consider the planning side of the equation as well, Jacobsen says. Otherwise they risk being stuck with high inventories of unwanted product.
3D printing poses some key challenges as well. Companies need to ensure that their employees possess the talent and skills to operate the machines, says Roddy Martin, managing director with Accenture. They also must cope with the huge volumes of data that are required to manage product lifecycles from design to retirement.
Quality is yet another key concern, says Murray. While 3D printing can produce a virtually endless variety of items, manufacturers must ensure that they’re every bit as reliable as those that come off a traditional assembly line.
To learn more about the impact of 3D printing on the automotive industry, check out this video, which also addresses the critical issues of managing SKU variety and warehouse flow-through, and risk management and quality assurance.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.