Why 3D Printed Food Just Transformed Your Supply Chain

Hans Thalbauer

Numerous sectors are experimenting with 3D printing, which has the potential to disrupt many markets. One that’s already making progress is the food industry.

The U.S. Army hopes to use 3D printers to customize food for each soldier. NASA is exploring 3D printing of food in space. The technology could eventually even end hunger around the world.

What does that have to do with your supply chain? Quite a bit — because 3D printing does more than just revolutionize the production process. It also requires a complete realignment of the supply chain.

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And the way 3D printing transforms the supply chain holds lessons for how organizations must reinvent themselves in the new era of the extended supply chain.

Supply chain spaghetti junction

The extended supply chain replaces the old linear chain with not just a network, but a network of networks. The need for this network of networks is being driven by four key factors: individualized products, the sharing economy, resource scarcity, and customer-centricity.

To understand these forces, imagine you operate a large restaurant chain, and you’re struggling to differentiate yourself against tough competition. You’ve decided you can stand out by delivering customized entrees. In fact, you’re going to leverage 3D printing to offer personalized pasta.

With 3D printing technology, you can make one-off pasta dishes on the fly. You can give customers a choice of ingredients (gluten-free!), flavors (salted caramel!), and shapes (Leaning Towers of Pisa!). You can offer the personalized pasta in your restaurants, in supermarkets, and on your ecommerce website.

You may think this initiative simply requires you to transform production. But that’s just the beginning. You also need to re-architect research and development, demand signals, asset management, logistics, partner management, and more.

First, you need to develop the matrix of ingredients, flavors, and shapes you’ll offer. As part of that effort, you’ll have to consider health and safety regulations.

Then, you need to shift some of your manufacturing directly into your kitchens. That will also affect packaging requirements. Logistics will change as well, because instead of full truckloads, you’ll be delivering more frequently, with more variety, and in smaller quantities.

Next, you need to perfect demand signals to anticipate which pasta variations in which quantities will come through which channels. You need to manage supply signals source more kinds of raw materials in closer to real time.

Last, the source of your signals will change. Some will continue to come from point of sale. But others, such as supplies replenishment and asset maintenance, can come direct from your 3D printers.

Four key ingredients of the extended supply chain

As with our pasta scenario, the drivers of the extended supply chain require transformation across business models and business processes. First, growing demand for individualized products calls for the same shifts in R&D, asset management, logistics, and more that 3D printed pasta requires.

Second, as with the personalized entrees, the sharing economy integrates a network of partners, from suppliers to equipment makers to outsourced manufacturing, all electronically and transparently interconnected, in real time and all the time.

Third, resource scarcity involves pressures not just on raw materials but also on full-time and contingent labor, with the necessary skills and flexibility to support new business models and processes.

And finally, for personalized pasta sellers and for your own business, it all comes down to customer-centricity. To compete in today’s business environment and to meet current and future customer expectations, all your operations must increasingly revolve around rapidly comprehending and responding to customer demand.

Want to learn more? Digitalize your operations to uncover new business models and a new world of work.


Hans Thalbauer

About Hans Thalbauer

Hans Thalbauer is globally responsible for solution management and the go-to-market functions for SAP digital supply chain solutions and the SAP Leonardo portfolio of Internet of Things solutions. In this role, he is engaged in creative dialogues with businesses and operations worldwide, addressing customer needs and introducing innovative business processes, including the vision of creating a live business environment for everyone working in operations. Hans has more than 17 years with SAP and is based out of Palo Alto, CA, USA. He has held positions in development, product and solution management, and the go-to-market organization. Hans holds a degree in Business Information Systems from the University Vienna, Austria.