January 16, 2018

How 3D Printing is Transforming Global Supply Chains

By Kamogelo Mmutlana

As part of its 2017 Supply chain foresight report, Barloworld Logistics investigated and identified the key technology tools and platforms that are shaping the world’s supply chains. With highly disruptive forces now coming into play in the corporate sphere, it is essential that leaders and decision makers plan for the close integration of certain technology tools and trends. Chief among the trends to emerge this year were 3D printing and its extension, ‘factory-in-a-box’ style production.

“It is clear that 3D printing is going to have a major impact on the supply chain, and as a company that enables smart supply chain management, we believe that now is the time to investigate how and where this technology can be leveraged most effectively,” says Kamogelo Mmutlana, Chief Executive Officer, Barloworld Logistics.

Indeed, while it has been in the incubation stage for some time, 3D printing appears to be entering mainstream consciousness – in every sphere. Around the world, businesses, governments and educational institutions are embracing 3D printing technology.

According to the Wohlers Report 2016 (a worldwide review) the 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) industry grew 25.9% (CAGR – Corporate Annual Growth Rate) to reach $5.165 billion in 2015. The report notes that industry growth consists of all AM products and services worldwide.

Looking ahead, management consultancy McKinsey has forecasted that 3D printing could have an economic impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025.

“The benefits are endless, and include unlimited freedom with regards to product design and manufacture, as well as lowered production costs,” adds Mmutlana. “From medical implants and prosthetics produced in a day to low cost housing, this technology will change our world.”

Major brands and corporates are already harnessing additive manufacturing to get ahead in competitive markets. For example, Nike is partnering with HP and using the HP Jet Fusion 3D printer to produce 3D printed footwear at greater speeds than ever before – reaching a dizzying new height of customization and innovation.

As The Economist reports, 3D-printed objects are increasingly being produced ‘as finished items, rather than as models or prototypes.’ The publication cited a PWC report that concluded that ‘more than two-thirds of American manufacturers are now using 3D printing in some form or the other.’

Notably, U.S. corporate juggernaut GE has invested $50m in a 3D-printing facility at a plant in Alabama – designed to print up to 40,000 fuel nozzles a year for the new LEAP jet engine it is making in partnership with a French company.

“While 3D printing or additive manufacturing has yet to make a significant impact in South Africa, business leaders need to start thinking about how this trend will impact the supply chain, and also where the risks to their own business lie,” cautions Mmutlana.

Are You Ready for ‘Factory-in-a-Box’?

 With additive manufacturing firmly on the horizon, some analysts are predicting the rise of a ‘factory-in-a-box’ scenario – whereby we will no longer need multiple machines to make a single product.

“In the near future, each individual 3D printer could be able to print several different materials using multiple processes in multiple, decentralised locations,” explains Mmutlana. “As a result, logistics and supply chain management could be drastically transformed. Instead of serving big, complex networks, we may soon be tasked with enabling nimble, innovative, garage-sized industries.”

Although the emergence of a ‘factory-in-a-box’ era may seem too unlikely and perhaps too far away to even consider, the onus is on every leader to make calculated decisions that will protect existing businesses from such disruptive forces. Without doubt, the key is to move with the changes, not against them – which means thinking outside the proverbial box in every way…

Kamogelo Mmutlana is CEO at Barloworld Logistics

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