Lot of One: Will Warehouses Sit Empty as 3D Printing Customization Kills Mass Manufacturing?


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John Jordan, of Penn State University, understands the vast implications of 3D printing technology on the world and industrial production. Manufacturing as we know it, along with how we create more complex geometries and present them, is being, and will be further disrupted by a technology allowing for innovations to be created faster, better, and more affordably—but also in ways we never expected before. Jordan focuses on the changes we will see in organizational design, concerning decisions in volume of production at the managerial level and which parts will be 3D printed, how options in customization will continue to grow, and what level of education will be required for businesses and their employees adopting new practices in the digital age.

John Jordan (Photo credit: Penn State University)

Jordan is careful to evaluate 3D printing and its relative impact realistically, understanding there is no guarantee that it will ‘force a shift,’ or even begin to replace conventional mass production as we know it. He understands that humans, in their most basic forms of creating and manufacturing, have three choices: add, mold, or subtract. 3D printing and additive manufacturing have come along and offered us new choices for on-demand, on-site production—and often in remote locations; great examples of this are developing countries, military installations, and the oil and gas industry.

Opportunities are vast in customization, and Jordan points to examples in the hearing aid and orthodontic markets. The sudden availability of technology for producing complex geometries that can be created through 3D modeling and refined as needed, quickly and affordably, offers extensive latitude also—and not only to businesses but to anyone who is designing and engineering parts, pieces, or prototypes.

In his research, Jordan looks to industry automotive leaders like Mercedes and Porsche, both of which are making use of 3D printing in polymers and metal, as well as fabricating parts that have become obsolete and would be very difficult to order or find today.

“Moving the locus and scale of production in turn affects the size and activities of the purchasing organization, the inventory management function, and of course factories,” states Jordan. “Previously impossible repairs (such as rebuilding broken teeth on a large, complex, and/or obsolete gear) can become feasible. Forecasts may need to become much more granular, responsive, and localized to reflect smaller production facilities closer to end demand.”

3D printed engine by Porsche (photo: Formlabs)

Most consumers get excited about customizations. Just as 3D printing is allowing the medical field to become ‘patient-specific’ and allowing for a higher quality of life for patients, within the consumer realm, this means that shoes and a variety of different size-reliant purchases could feasibly in the future be tailor made every time. Undeniably, however, manufacturers and retailers—as well as buyers—are deeply entrenched in conventional processes, and Jordan predicts that ‘the supply chain will need to be reconceived and reconfigured, with significant organizational implications.’ He also states that currently the ‘defining capabilities’ of 3D printing are not being used to their potential, which many will concur with, and possibly consider it a vast understatement as well.

Jordan again brings forth the example of the hearing aid industry:

“To design a mass customization process from scratch, the key is to begin with unique units of demand: what is it that is being customized and to what parameters? The hearing aid market is instructive in this regard: local audiologists measure the customer’s hearing loss and ear dimensions, then feed this data into the process,” states Jordan. “In the absence of a steady stream of such customized orders, the ‘mass’ in mass customization fails to materialize at economically attractive levels. Where else can customizable goods find willing buyers, who can be served by fitters and configurators with access to 3D printing capacity in some shape or form?”

When business owners do realize that 3D printing is a possibility, and they begin expanding on the benefits, ‘processes are redefined.’ It is somewhat staggering to consider that with such extreme customization available, rather than lots of tens or hundreds or thousands, lots could commonly be reduced to just one.

Jordan envisions an ‘additive-native organization’ as one that will ‘give way to agile generalists,’ featuring products ‘closer to end customers’ and warehouses that will become quite empty due to consumers beginning to rely on items made specifically to their size and taste.

As an added boon for businesses and profitability levels, he also sees overall available capital increasing too as conventional and expensive methods such as tooling may not be necessary, and materials can be much cheaper, depending on the textile or metal.

“Finally, the capital investment in additive manufacturing equipment is highly adaptable: it is a thing that can make many different things. In contrast, stampers, molds, and dies are tightly constrained and difficult or impossible to adapt as market conditions change. Thus, the finance and accounting organization will face new parameters, potentially related to flexibility as well as cost,” states Jordan.

“These internal measures will eventually be judged by outside investors and analysts. Eventually, equity markets will expect new performance targets, so earnings guidance will evolve, putting pressure on traditional financial analysis and reporting.”

The availability of so many new materials is bringing 3D printing further into the fold also, and Jordan points to 3D printing in running shoes, with companies like Adidas and Carbon working together, as well as on the larger scale in aerospace with GE developing 3D printed aircraft engine nozzles.

GE’s forays are notable and vast in the 3D printing and additive manufacturing, but in the case of an innovation like the nozzles, GE demonstrates a long list of benefits from savings in cost, development time, and more, to include fuel expense. The elements of design involved are deemed inexpensive by Jordan, but financially, the ‘learning curve of parts consolidation’ would have to be navigated and in studying this project, Jordan makes the astute observation that if we look at 3D printing in the mass manufacturing mindset, there will be obstacles.

GE is 3D printing massive nozzles for aircraft engines. (Photo: GE Reports)

“Rather, with an expanded range of possibilities, existing assumptions will need to be tested. For example, in the realm of decentralization, 3D printing should not be assumed to drive most production from centralized facilities out to the periphery, but neither can centralization continue to be taken as the default. In short, each of the four domains [discussed] represents a set of decisions that organizational designers and managers will now need to address with conscious deliberation rather than previously constrained assumptions. The interrelationships among these domains of change—and others that will emerge—remain to be discovered,” states Jordan.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

[Source: ‘Additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) and the future of organizational design: some early notes from the field’]

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