3D printing is opening new opportunities for many industries across the globe. Its potential to bring disruptive changes to traditional manufacturing methods is gaining a foothold in many companies which are looking to increase the efficiency in different levels of their supply chain and reduce their existing costs.
Previously, we have written articles on the current and future impacts of 3D printing to the oil and gas and spare parts industry. We have mentioned a number of benefits it offers such as the acceleration of design processes of various products. Another value that the technology brings to the table - which we would now like to focus on - is its ability to produce replacement parts both in remote locations and on a make-to-order basis, thereby eliminating physical inventories and making way for the virtual warehouse.
This concept of the virtual warehouse stems from one application of 3D printing: the production of low-volume and/or complex parts. Where traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding would take weeks or months to produce final parts and must be done in bulk orders to be economical, 3D printers can fabricate the needed components in days at a much lower capital cost. This gives companies the opportunity to reduce not only the lead time in delivering the parts, but also to reduce the cost of maintaining their inventories and other logistic requirements. It eliminates the tendency to warehouse excess inventories which often times end up sitting on the shelves and becoming obsolete, which only translates to wasted expense.
With 3D printing, companies can have a virtual warehouse where they store digital designs in 3D printing file formats (e.g. STLs) in virtual inventories or secured cloud services. When needed, they can ship the electronic blueprint of a spare part to a local manufacturing depot or 3D printing service that is nearest to the remote site. The result: companies become more flexible in their production processes, getting the necessary spare parts only when and where they are needed while saving on storage space, transportation and other logistics costs. Further, the process of acquiring parts can even become faster if a company has its own on-site 3D printers.
For example, here at Type A Machines, we share the STL file of our spool holders which Series 1 or Series 1 Pro users can download and print on their own machines. This method eliminates the process of users buying parts from our online store and waiting for the spool holders to be delivered. When they require additional spool holders or if they need to replace an old one, they can download the file again, open it in their 3D printing software and print their parts the same day.
Another industry example is Maersk, a container shipping company. As stated on their website, Maersk is evaluating the utility of having a 3D printer on board their tanker vessels to enable their crew members to print parts while under way. According to the company, it may allow them to save on warehousing, packing, and air freight cost as well as the time spent in waiting customs clearance and delivery.
Through 3D printing replacement parts and with this shift from physical inventories to a more cost-effective virtual warehouse, companies will be able to drastically reduce the costs associated with storing and maintaining the availability of their parts. This transformation in inventory management are just two of the growing possibilities brought by 3D printing, and one can only imagine how else this technology will impact and define manufacturing in the years to come.