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Additive Manufacturing - Adding layers to supply chain decisions

If you are like most people, chances are that visiting the dentist is not on the top of your list of fun things to do. However, chipping a tooth or needing braces gives you no choice but to visit your family dentist. Traditionally, a chipped tooth required you to make various appointments, including drawn out visits for your dentist to prepare a mold of your tooth to send to a lab, placement of a temporary crown, and placement of the permanent crown. Nowadays, many dentists will simply take a digital image of the damaged tooth, run a design software to fit a digital crown on top of the chipped tooth, and print the crown within minutes. You can leave the office with your permanent crown at the end of your appointment. Isn’t that something else?

Additive manufacturing, widely known as 3D printing, is a technology that quickly converts digital design into physical products. The idea behind its operation is somewhat like that of a conventional inkjet printer, as both receive printing information from a digital file. The difference is that an inkjet printer applies ink to paper, while a 3D printer applies materials in successive patterns to produce a three-dimensional solid object. This also differentiates 3D printing from conventional manufacturing methods, in which materials are subtracted and not added. Among the major advantages of 3D printing are the lower number of production steps to design, prototype, and manufacture customized products. These factors change the economics of production and, as the technology continues to develop, will likely impact global operations, supply network design and location decisions in the future.

3D printing can potentially speed up delivery time through on-demand and decentralized production strategies, and lower logistics and production costs. Compared with conventional subtractive processes, the environmental impact of 3D printing is potentially lower as well, as companies can reduce logistics and production waste. Airbus, which has been using 3D printed parts on its newest jetliners, found that, by redesigning a bracket for 3D printing, it could achieve a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions over the lifecycle of the bracket and 25% reduction in material waste compared with traditional casting methods. The impact on location decisions, for instance, can indeed be profound. NASA has contracted the 3D printing company Made in Space to design a 3D printer to be tested at the International Space Station. More down-to-earth, Adidas is opening “speed factories” that use 3D printing to create custom shoes that are assembled and delivered closer to customer demand. 3D printing is here to stay and adds supply chain alternatives.

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