Additive Manufacturing Strategies

3D Hubs’ 3D Printing Warehouses Introduce Quality Control and Reduced Risk

ST Medical Devices

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Amsterdam-based 3D Hubs started as a distributed desktop 3D printing community before moving toward becoming a 3D printing service. By adding CNC, sheet forming, and other technologies, the company is now similar to Protolabs and Xometry. Recently, they announced that they’re setting up warehousing in Chicago and Amsterdam. Warehousing and clearance as well as small assembly operations was already something that was on offer from companies such as Syncreon and DHL. 3D Hubs is betting, however, that an integrated service will allow them to extend their client relationships and, in following, their revenue.

The company says that “outsourcing overseas has traditionally posed several risks and challenges, including finding dependable suppliers, effectively vetting their quality standards, and managing communications across time zones and languages. In addition to eliminating these challenges, which oftentimes would fall to engineers and disrupt their workflow, 3D Hubs is the first online manufacturing platform to successfully remove two of the biggest challenges related to overseas production: preventing customs delays and ensuring the quality of every delivered part.”

The new warehouses in Amsterdam and Chicago will be responsible for the clearance of items through customs, in addition to running a quality control center for examining all parts and ensuring they meet specifications before shipment to the customer.

CEO Bram de Zwart is quoted as saying, that with this move, “3D Hubs grants engineers and supply chain managers truly reliable access to overseas manufacturing.”

For a lot of small players, warehousing is a bit of a headache to set up. Customs clearance and freight forwarding is a large, established industry that one can quite easily hire. Pricing on those elements may be cost-prohibitive in some cases. If 3D Hubs is not only competitive with the established services but perhaps less expensive for a certain type of company, this offering may be great. The one-stop-shop approach would certainly make life easier and more manageable. The eye-catching feature here is that the company also wants to offer quality control services at these warehouses.

Quality inspection of inbound parts and reviewing the quality of raw materials before they reach their point of use is certainly a service that many people would wish to have in a lot of different scenarios. Quality is a huge problem with today’s long earth-stretching supply chains.

Caught in a perennial agency dilemma, distant vendors often only choose manufacturing firms through the prism of price. Margins are DLP-layer thin and the risks are enormous. Cutting corners creates profit and wiggle room for when it all goes pear-shaped. Judged only on price, many companies deliver the bare minimum.

Difficult communications could also let unintended errors in design and manufacturing seep into the process. For many industries, it is currently viable to ship from the manufacturer directly to the consumer or to break up containerized shipments in-country and then send them onward direct to the consumer with FedEx or UPS. You probably will never have seen your product before it hits the consumer. With these scenarios, a quality control service becomes extra relevant and desirable.

Skelex uses 3D Hubs to manufacture exoskeletons.

Many products are outsourced from multiple countries and suppliers. To have one central collection point for onward distribution would make a lot of sense. If one could also hire 3D Hubs for limited assembly operations and packaging, it would become more viable still. Localization operations, whereby a doggie door in a cardboard box lets shippers add a local plug or place in a local manual, would also be viable.

All in all, by offering a one-stop shop, 3D Hubs is asking for the attention of the large shipping companies of the world. Increased movements by the firm into high-value logistics will get tongues wagging at DHL and FedEx. I’ve long considered 3D printing services as nigh-irresistible targets for DHL and its brethren since it insulates them from investor pressure on how their future will be impacted by 3D printing.

Previously, I was intensely critically of 3D Hubs’ move to destroy its community, finding it value-destroying and unnecessary. There was always going to be value in connecting the largest group of 3D printer operators worldwide, if only through market intelligence or selling them materials. Also, the company’s unique proposition of true local manufacturing was worthwhile and, after the community destruction, 3D Hubs would be just like any other service.

With this move, 3D Hubs does have a new offering that could indicate many more value-added services in the future aimed at letting small businesses compete globally. There is no one-stop-shop for any and all manufacturing services. It would be amazing to have one service that could take any idea and turn it into a finished product. 3D Hubs now has made itself more valuable in terms of potential winnings and in terms of the help it can offer customers. It has also perhaps given the parcel delivery services of the world and idea of how to find a post-Amazon future.

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