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Additive Manufacturing’s Disruptive Impact on the Supply Chain

By Peter Wawrow, Ph.D., St. Clair College

Manufacturing products have evolved over centuries with continuous technological advancements. Manual tools have given way to highly technical machines, which has decreased the time it takes to machine a part and reduced the physical demands on the operator. However, the basic manufacturing premise has remained relatively constant: Raw material is shaped, formed, cut, etc. to produce a final product. These traditional manufacturing methods can be termed subtractive manufacturing, as material is removed to create the final product.

Additive manufacturing provides the potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing methods. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, instead of removing material adds material, layer by layer, in the shape and structure intended until the final product is completed. The advantage of this method includes less material waste, ability to design complex shapes, design freedom and rapid prototyping. However, while additive manufacturing has been around since the 1980s, it has not replaced traditional manufacturing, and it may yet be several years before it has a significant impact on most manufacturers (Attaran, 2017).

This is not to say that additive manufacturing is a fad, as the trend for 3D printing utilization continues to grow and this trend is not changing anytime soon. In 2011, the global revenue for additive manufactured goods was $623.6 million USD and this is projected to increase to $50 billion USD by 2030 (Tofail et al, 2018).

In addition to technological improvements and additional applications required for the realization of a disruptive shift felt by additive manufacturing, integration of additive manufacturing in the supply chain must be realized (Chan et al, 2018). A typical supply chain begins with raw material that gets shipped to two or three tiers of suppliers before ending up at the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) factory to assemble the final product. This network uses traditional manufacturing techniques that require the raw material to be machined into components, sub assembled and then assembled with other parts. In the case of a molded part, the mold is machined from raw material, then material is injected into the mold, sub assembled and then goes to final assembly. This chain of events is not compatible with additive manufacturing, as the process for working with raw material varies tremendously. Disruption of the supply chain process would be required in order to realize the advantages of additive manufacturing.

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