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Will 3D Printing Revolutionize Supply Chains?


Certain locations and situations can pose serious challenges for supply operations. Case in point: disaster zones, remote areas, and the front lines of war, all of which make it difficult if not impossible to obtain needed parts and supplies on a timely basis.

What can be done? Other than conventional tactics, like overstocking essential parts and supplies, a novel technological solution is coming to the forefront: 3D printing.

A Money-Saving Technology

According to Wikipedia, 3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing” (AM), “refers to processes used to create a three-dimensional object in which layers of material are formed under computer control… Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and are produced using digital-model data from a 3D model or another electronic data source such as an Additive Manufacturing File (AMF)…”

With these technologically revolutionary capabilities at hand, the 3D printing concept promises to give corporations, aid and relief groups, and military organizations the ability to “print” often desperately-needed parts and components on demand while saving considerable amounts of money in the process.

These benefits are more than theoretical. The Economist published an article last November noting that the American aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman recently brought two 3D printers on board for what the magazine describes as “a tour of duty.”

During the eight months the ship was at sea, the magazine says, her crew “devised and printed such items as better funnels for oil cans (to reduce spillage), protective covers for light switches (to stop people bumping into them and inadvertently plunging, say, the flight deck into darkness), and also a cleverly shaped widget [that]…  snaps onto walkie-talkies, reinforcing a connection that is otherwise prone to break in the rough-and-tumble of naval usage.”

A maintenance officer on the Truman told The Economist that, even with this limited usage, the crew saved $40,000 in expenses for replacement parts. Since each 3D printer costs only about $2,000, that’s a handsome return on investment, not to mention a handy means of saving time, aggravation, and, just possibly, even lives in remote or dangerous locations.

The magazine reports other uses from around the world as well. For instance, “Israel’s air force prints plastic parts that are as strong as aluminum, in order to keep planes that date from the 1980s flying. And America is advising the governments of Australia, Britain, and France on 3D printing, in order to speed up these allies’ supply chains…”

An Aid to Aid Organizations

Oxfam is seeking to use 3D printing to create a better hand washing system for Syrian refugees

The global aid community is also taking advantage of 3D printing’s benefits. For example, the international aid and relief organization Oxfam and its partners throughout the world are using 3D printing for fast and affordable production of equipment components and replacement parts. Doing so, the organization says, often provides a faster and more efficient way of meeting urgent remote needs than traditional supply chains.

Will 3D printing revolutionize supply-chain operations? It’s too soon to tell. But the potential is clearly there, and with the technology’s time- and money-saving advantages, it’s a good bet that corporate, organizational, and military supply operations will be making significantly greater use of 3D printing in the months and years ahead.