3D Printing – A technology disrupting supply chains?

In class, we have already discussed the vast implications COVID-19 had (and still has) on worldwide supply chains. 

I wondered if there are technologies that can help companies be better prepared for future supply chain outages. 

While doing research, one of the most exciting technologies I discovered was 3D printing. To make this blog post more practical, I decided to use the global automotive supply chain as an example of 3D printing’s disruptive potential.

What is 3D printing?

There must be made a general distinction between subtractive and additive manufacturing. 

Subtractive manufacturing removes material step-by-step to create objects. It starts with solid blocks of material and shapes by cutting, boring, drilling, and grinding. Typical examples are, e.g., CNC machining and laser cutting.

Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, creates a 3D objective using a digital file. Laying down successive layers of material until an object is created enables the production of complex shapes using less material than traditional methods.

3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing that creates an object by adding layers to a printing surface using various materials. Now, most 3D printers are slow and small. However, the technology gets improved on an ongoing basis and is used in every industry you can think of, e.g., automotive, aviation, construction, healthcare, and even food. 

How does the automotive industry and its supply chain look like?

It is complicated! This sums up all you need to know about the global automotive supply chain. 

In my opinion, one of the main reasons for this complexity is the coexistence of many car parts produced by many suppliers.  

The average car consists of around 20,000 parts.

Various suppliers produce and assemble those parts, making it hard to manage and easily exposed to external influences such as COVID-19.

Technologies such as 3D printing might reduce complexity and transform the industry in a variety of ways.

What are the applications and implications of 3D printing in the automotive industry?  

3D printing already has a few core fields of application. Premanufacturing samples and tools facilitate prototyping and validating. Additionally, 3D printing helps to demonstrate designs and concepts while enabling the customization of certain parts. 

In the future, 3D printers will most likely be able to print entire chassis, mass-print most parts of automobiles, and reduce their overall complexity. 

Because of its various fields of application, the technology can provide impactful advantages. By reducing complexity and increasing efficiency (mainly in R&D), companies in the automotive industry can reduce their costs. Furthermore, 3D Printing allows faster design and production cycles while improving IP protection because of reduced outsourcing, thereby increasing possibilities for innovation. Lastly, it increases the general flexibility to handle global disruptions.

How does 3D printing disrupt the automotive industry and its supply chains?

3D printing enables the centralization of a decentralized industry. Car manufacturers gain bargaining power because of their higher independence, whereas suppliers are losing influence. The technology allows muss less transportation between suppliers, which optimizes timing for assembly, thereby rationalizing inventory and logistics through ‘on-demand production. Replacing an expensive and time-intensive CNC-production allows smaller companies to be more flexible and competitive because of lower costs, reducing entry barriers to the automotive industry. 

In my opinion, 3D printing is an excellent example of how digital transformation enables other technologies to emerge that can disrupt whole industries.

Feel free to comment on other technologies which development and impact accelerated because of digital transformation!









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  1. Carlos Montero · ·

    Excellent blog and topic, I am also a big fan of 3D printing, and I have been fascinated by 3D printing technology since I heard of it for the first time. I went to the University of Maine for my undergrad, and I have to say I was pretty proud when I found out that my old alma mater made the world’s largest 3D printed boat with the world’s largest 3D printer. I think you brought up great points on how 3D technology has the opportunity to change the supply changes issue that Covid brought out. On a side note, have you had the chance to see the 3D concrete printers that can create the walls of a home in record time?

  2. You make a great point here and it makes me think that there was a missed opportunity from some 3D printing manufacturer to really capitalize on: 1) everyone being stuck at home for a year and 2) everyone having supply chain issues for a broad range of things. Now granted perhaps the uses were too limited as you can’t 3D print toilet paper or food but still it seems like this was a missed opportunity.

    I also have no idea what the costs are and for all I know the raw materials could also be victim to the same supply chain woes. I’m hesitant to say, “Maybe for the next pandemic?” but sadly, that’s exactly what I’m thinking!

  3. I love the idea of 3D printing helping solve some of the global supply chain issues we are facing. COVID 19 has had such a profound impact on all people, and we are going to continue to feel the impact of COVID 19 in the upcoming months in our supply chains. Due to long shutdowns in many Asian nations, factories that American and European companies have relied on are not able to meet demand for the first time.

    3D printing could allow companies to produce more of its products locally and rely less on international suppliers. I’m curious what the cost to produce materials is with 3D printing? Carlos mentioned in the post above that UMaine build the world’s largest 3D printed boat. I’ll have to look into this and similar projects to better understand cost.

    The future of 3D printing looks bright!

  4. I have always found 3D printing really intriguing but did not consider its effects on the supply chain for various industries. In respect to the automotive industry, car prices have increased significantly due to a shortage in supplies and an increase in demand. Perhaps this is the kind of change we need to help make the automotive industry more affordable for all. Various industries need to re-evaluate their supply chains since most of the issues and unavailability of products were due to supply chain issues/disruption during the pandemic. It would be interesting to see how companies use this technology in the near future!

  5. Christina S · ·

    I have never quite understood 3D printing, and I keep seeing job postings for “FormLabs” flooding my email and was writing them off as irrelevant, so I appreciate this overview in helping to change my mind about the benefits and impact of 3D printing.

    I remember at one point in time there was a 3D printing store on Newbury Street (aging myself here), and it seemed like a novelty shop for ultra high-net worth individuals. The items in the store were unique but totally impractical, like a bust of Elvis or something, and I remember wondering what on earth the point was for those types of items. Little did I know how disruptive and important these novel printers would ultimately become! I love how you used the automotive industry example and laid out the implications across the board from R&D spend to barriers to entry, etc.

  6. Wow! I actually didn’t even know that 3D printing was used in the auto industry at all… I remember a while back I was shocked to find out that McDonalds was selling their used coffee beans to Ford to be mixed with plastic and create the headlight at a 20% decrease in weight! I have been following 3D printing in the construction industry for quite some time- where they print concrete into walls and make make, now, somewhat complex and large structures that are quite durable! Thanks for opening up my eyes to the auto industry! I have a feeling this tech may be similar to google glass (where it will find a better use over time!)

  7. DropItLikeItHox · ·

    Definitely an interesting perspective on 3D Printing, I’ve never considered it’s viability outside of consumer usage. I definitely agree that it would make sense for alpha/beta level prototyping. I would challenge the feasibility of it being able to replace expensive machinery that’s able to produce mass parts at fast speeds for the auto manufacturing industry. I would think the machinery has already been improved to the point where it’s as efficient and cheap to run as 3D printing could ever be. At the same time, I may be comparing them to the 3D printers I see on desks, and instead, future commercial use would be faster and more efficient! Excited to see the future of this industry.

  8. greenmonsterbc · ·

    My first introduction to 3D printing was during an internship at Raytheon about 7-8 years ago. At that time Raytheon had invested R&D budget for a handful of 3D printers, but really had no indication or way to monetize their use. I’d be curious to know if you had found any viable commercial uses for 3D printers or if its still considered a future challenge.

  9. kaylacyrs · ·

    Wow – while I have obviously heard of 3-D printing and we have discussed in class I never really thought about the logistics of how it works. Thank you for the excellent and succinct explanation. Integration across the value chain definitely brings more power to the auto retailers and can control their own destinies in a much better way.

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