In the few short years that 3D printing has become an increasingly popular tool worldwide, most manufacturers have used the technology to build prototypes. Today, however, companies are moving well beyond prototyping, using 3D printing to build working parts, save costs, and reduce down time.
What’s more, the technology is creating new business models and partners for companies that choose to foster innovation and new thinking. These revolutionary changes are affecting operations, responsiveness, and the way work is done by reducing inventory, accelerating parts delivery, enabling cost-effective short production runs, and printing necessary small volume parts on demand.
Sneakers to hips to planes
Companies are starting to move beyond using 3D printing solely for prototypes. Manufacturers now use the tools to make sneakers, medical replacement parts, and even airplane components.
Companies are also beginning to realize real efficiency gains. For example, one airplane manufacturer had been building a very large plane component that required 18 different parts from five different suppliers. Today, that same manufacturer can print the entire component, which is lighter and requires less labor for assembly and welding.
You might wonder why every large-part manufacturer is not using 3D printing. The reality is that there are still significant challenges. For example, some manufacturers may not have printers large enough for the required part, or materials may need to be swapped out, causing specs to be redone.
But the greatest challenge, especially in industries like aviation and automotive, is regulation. Many such industries are heavily regulated, requiring multiple tests and worker education before parts are certified.
With new processes come new regulatory guidelines and even more new tests. After post-processing steps are completed, another round of inspections is likely needed. At SAP, we’re working closely with regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), International Standardization Organization (ISO), and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to help develop processes that can achieve certification efficiently and safely.
New rules for new technology
Companies are realizing they need better 3D printers and processes to fully leverage the full potential of 3D printing technology. Many companies are not yet familiar with how to leverage the technology. Many choose to purchase their own 3D printers, which can be difficult to use (especially metallic printers). They can also be noisy and produce a lot of residue—not an easy way to test-drive a potential new business model.
Many companies that have already been experimenting with 3D printing are ready to move beyond prototyping. They want to use the technology in production, but there are few standards or established processes in place. That means companies are using a trial-and-error approach and are looking for help standardizing the processes.
In order to meet the needs of these companies, SAP has partnered with UPS to bring together manufacturers, industrial 3D printing companies, service providers, materials providers, postal companies, and logistics networks. The 28 companies in the early access program are working together to create an end-to-end digital manufacturing system.
The process would create a seamless, integrated set of business processes that are standardized and scalable. Those processes cover digitizing, approving, certifying, and manufacturing digital parts using 3D printing technology.
With a sound ecosystem in place, companies can disrupt business models and their own processes. New product design procedures, optimized manufacturing, and logistics systems, as well as new and bigger business models, will emerge.
Different companies, different needs
Different types of companies require very different types of printing/manufacturing services. Here are three typical cases:
- Building new products. Many startup companies working in areas such as the Internet of Things or robotics have a core product design, but do not have access to the manufacturing facilities. Startups are known for prototyping and multiple product iterations before finalizing design. Using 3D printers, these companies can create parts or full products and move to production faster.
- Real-time production. Industrial production companies are looking for support and ways to reduce down time. Consider the bottling company that uses different tools for different bottle types. When these tools break, that production line is out of service. Replacement metallic parts are highly customized, and it’s not unusual for new parts to take 2 or 3 months to arrive from overseas locations. With 3D printing, a temporary plastic part can be created and delivered in two days. Eventually, as the technology evolves, 3D printing could even be used to create permanent parts.
- Spare parts. Auto parts manufacturers must plan availability of parts for discontinued or obsolete models. Those spare parts need to be ordered, distributed around the world, and stored—all costly processes. It is often difficult to know how many parts will actually be needed, and where those parts will be needed. Storage, inventory, and transportation costs all add up. With on-demand supply chain services, businesses can better manage spare parts at a lower cost. If fulfillment is done at a warehouse managed by a postal carrier, downtime can be dramatically reduced.
3D printing may be a relatively new technology, but it is evolving at lightning speed. Companies in nearly every industry that realize its potential are primed to transform entire business models, disrupt markets, and identify new revenue opportunities. With the right standards and best practices established, the possibilities are limitless.