The assembly line of this generation will represent

One look at the history of supply chains and it may take you back to Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1913. As an industrial designer, mass production of consumer goods was the birthplace of my business, and, although arguably the root of our current consumption levels, it revolutionized manufacturing and supply chains.

But did? The assembly line is often the poster child of the Industrial Revolution, but it took a lot of innovation throughout the ecosystem to eventually lead to customized processes like Amazon and manufacturing systems like Alibaba. So, how do we go from efficiently building automobiles to next-day delivery and making essentially anything accessible? And how does all this relate to 3D printing?

The increase in the speed and efficiency of production of products through the assembly line only covers the processes from raw materials to marketable product.

Over the decades, some of the blanks were filled with great technology in the implementation of shipping containers, UPC part numbers, and other hardware/system advances, but it was not until the rise of software solutions in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). The globalization of supply chain management and allowing companies like Alibaba and Amazon to flourish. Revolutionary software is often the adhesion between existing technologies to produce a disruptive solution.

The software will act as a catalyst in connecting 3D printing and the supply chain.

3D printing is a great technology inspired by incredible innovations in materials science, hardware and product development, but it is not yet a system. When we build systems around 3D printing, we will see massive disruption in supply chain management and defining how we design, manufacture and deliver parts.

So, how do we build systems around 3D printing? We build software to integrate existing technologies and restructure everything we know about the supply chain. Optimizing supply chains (and business in general) usually boils down to three things: removing waste, cutting time, reducing costs.

3D printing not only removes waste, it naturally reuses it

How naturally ‘recyclable’ materials used in 3D printing, from metals to thermoplastics, are a different conversation, but an interesting way to think of it as we move towards ridding the world of monstrous hybrids How can I work in 3D printing can have an impact on many aspects of supply chain waste, but clearly include overproduction, waiting, transportation and excessive inventory.

3D printing is the backbone of agile, on-demand manufacturing, completely eliminating over-production and excessive inventory. This constrains economies of scale by removing most of the upfront costs associated with the choice of injection molding. Oh you want to manufacture and distribute a different product tomorrow? Do this overnight.

In addition to sending some electrons through the glass, with manufacturing shifting closer to the end users (doesn’t fiberoptic cable blow your mind?), there is minimal transport. 3D printing service bureaus are popping up everywhere and Gartner has grown less than 30% over the next five years and more than doubled its shipments of printers from 2014 this year.

With the flexibility of 3D printers to present them as mini-factories, we’re placing manufacturers in everyone’s backyards and eventually in their homes. Hyper-local manufacturing or sourcing of manufacturing at the user level eventually eliminates transportation as part of the supply chain.

What about time? Aren’t printers slow?

The time savings with locally sourced 3D printing is all about same-day manufacturing and delivery; There is no inventory with our current hub and spoke system, and no cross-world transportation.

When it comes to timing: Sure, printer products take a while to produce, but it seems like every other week I wake up to an article on printers that are 100 times faster than their predecessors. It’s only a matter of time unless it’s an irrelevant point. Wasn’t the journey slow once? There will come a time when it will compare horses to airplanes.

Progress in hardware is exponential and, with Autodesk and HP now partnering against existing players such as Stratasys and 3D Systems, the competition is becoming fiercer.

The industry is beginning to invest heavily in software to ease the inherent barriers of CAD and to create a marketplace for sharing and creating products, but the industry is still in the first adoption stage to make the technology easy, intuitive and practical. The methods have been bogged down in hacking together.

Software that uses this technology as a pawn in the big game of supply chains will revolutionize how we design, manufacture and deliver parts. It will disrupt every industry, infiltrate every field, connect the world’s products and drive the next global industrial revolution.

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