Metal 3D Printing Steps Up to Solve Pressing Supply Chain Issues

A new industrial revolution promises to ease global supply chain issues while ushering in new opportunities for industrial design and control.

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While 3D printing has been making headlines for years, one particular area of the burgeoning industry – the additive layering of metals to create components for everything from medical surgical robots to airplane engine parts – has rocketed in popularity over the past two years. As supply chains have been crippled by factors outside of their control like COVID-19, metal printing parts suppliers are helping brands regain control over the manufacturing process.

Supply chain disruptions were up 67% year-over-year in 2020, with those caused by the pandemic accounting for the most damage, according to an annual report from supply chain risk monitor, Resilinc. Supply shortages for everything from semiconductor chips to plastics and cardboard were up 638% in the first half of 2021. North America was affected the most, pummeling corporate earnings and leading many companies to explore new avenues for cost savings and efficiencies, such as additive manufacturing.

The last industrial revolution was marked by the invention of machines that could automate processes en masse. Companies leveraged economies of scale to dramatically reduce average unit costs and lead times. Automobile production time fell from 12 hours and 8 minutes in 1913 to 1 hour and 35 minutes in 1914 after Henry Ford established the first moving assembly line. 3D printing is also making a huge impact, but in a very different way – by reducing product development time, expense and risk. This creates a chain reaction of positives such as accelerating revenue curves, enabling OEMs to reinvest in research and development, and passing improved products and cost savings onto customers.

3D Printing Reduces Supply Chain Costs

An MIT analysis suggests that 3D printing could reduce total supply chain costs by 50% to 90% as production moves from make-to-stock offshore facilities that require a heavy reliance on freight to make-on-demand facilities located closer to the final customer. Companies have deployed additive printing technologies in recent years to scale metal 3D printing volumes and compete with traditional manufacturing. With digital manufacturing, OEMs can scale up or down on an as-needed basis, responding in real-time to fluctuations in demand or clogs in the supply chain.

Related: Engineers Reinvent Metal 3D Printing

Metal 3D printing helps to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S. and injects reliability into the supply chain. For years, OEMs have relied on labor located in faraway places for its affordability. But some products require multiple metal components sourced from around the world to be shipped to one place for assembly, and COVID-19 disruptions have underscored the need to return as much as possible in-house so OEMs can reduce their dependence on industrial logistics and better adapt to environmental, geopolitical and factory disruptions.

Metal 3D Printing Is Expanding to Meet Supply Chain Needs

OEMs, recognizing these benefits, are starting to rely more heavily on metal printing. For example, 3DEO has increased its real estate square footage by more than 6X over the last year to meet an increase in demand for clients across a variety of industries. Its average customer’s annual order quantity now exceeds 20,000 parts per year, with customers expanding production orders on average more than 10 times in their first year of operation.

The shift to additive manufacturing can unlocks a new sense of logistical freedom and enable the invention of new designs. OEM engineers are invited to rethink design through geometric freedom, redesigning metal parts to increase functionality and efficiency. The actuator housing on a Stanley Black & Decker PD45 Post Driver, for example, was reduced from four parts to one because of a new design enabled by metal 3D printing. By using cloud manufacturing and 3D printing technologies, companies can combine multiple parts into one to further reduce demand in the supply chain.

In short, 3D metal printing is revolutionizing the supply chain for metal components on a scale not seen since the last industrial revolution.

About the Author: Matt Sand is the co-founder and president of 3DEO. He has founded or co-founded several startup companies, invested in early-stage companies at two Southern California-based venture funds, taught entrepreneurship courses at UCLA and LMU, and consulted with dozens of innovative companies of all sizes.