3D Print, Robotics and Open Systems to disrupt the supply chain?

My visit to the TCT show in Birmingham last week allowed me not only to catch up on the latest and greatest in 3D Scan and Print technologies but also to speak with, amongst others, Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems. One of the leading providers of 3D print technologies and materials.

One of the topics on my agenda was to understand the potentially disruptive effect that 3D Print technology may have on (some) manufacturers’ supply chain ecosystems. Credit, where credit is due; my thoughts are incited by recent discussions on IBM’s vision of the (manufacturing) future.

A couple of months ago I was listening in on an analyst call from IBM’s Global Services organisation discussing the radical effect that 3D Printing, affordable robotics and open systems will have on areas of supply chain. (IBM IBV Thought Leadership topic  http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/thoughtleadership/software-define… ). Their assertion was that these new technologies are disruptors; catalysts to lowering barriers to entry (among them cost of entry and scale) for many technology and manufacturing companies. These changes in turn will re-shape some supply chain ecosystems; redefining (some of) those that are complex and global to localised, entrpreneurial and dynamic – and importantly worthy of immediate attention of (some) manufacturers.

Speaking to 3D Systems Reichental, he agrees with IBM’s sentiment, not least from transformative effects that 3D Printing will have on manufacturing design and production (and supply chain). 3D Systems is already seeing a transformative effect in some sectors, not least in medical devices. As a proof point, one of 3DSystems’ customers, Align Technology Inc., are already mass customising using their products and materials;  17 Million unique printed parts per year in fact. On talking directly to a number of attendees at TCT, notably medical and dental  manufacturing companies, there are defnitely some of them looking at the potential to reshape some of their manufacturing lines and services based on developments in 3D printers/materials.  Having said this, there still remain hurdles; not least amongst these are the ready availability of suitable (medical grade/sterile) materials.

One could be sceptical and suggest that 3D Print will remain a specialist technlogy; forcused on niche, perhaps prototype markets, or for personal use (for example Makielabs http://makie.me/ printed dolls), but I for one agree there’s disruptive change afoot. Needless to say, there’s much yet to be done to move the market forward, in particular in areas such as print materials, speed of print, quality and repeatability and (of course) cost. But the disruptive effect on supply chains will be VERY interesting to track as 3D printing becomes more mainsream in both home use and industrial manufacturing.

One last point….Although I agree in principle with predictions on  transformations based on 3D Print, robotics and open systems, I have to say that the estimated timescales mooted by IBM (<2020) may be a tad agressive. Why do I say that? Well for one thing, it’s not always/just the hurdles in technology that slow  our pace of change – in many cases it’s  people, their prejudices; their fears and resistance to change that may ultimately add a treacle-like consistency to what could be a fast flowing torrent of manufacturing and supply chain innovation. As a supporter of change for the good of the customer, I’d be delighted, in this instance, to be proved wrong!