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Supply Chain Expert Weighs in 3D Printing’s Role in Resilience

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Additive manufacturing (AM) experts have understood for at least a decade that the technology could prove vital for digital inventories and the production of spare parts. However, it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that 3D printing’s use as a form of supply chain insurance became its biggest selling point.

There is one professional who has thought of AM as a supply chain opportunity since she founded a leading service bureau in 2013. Michelle Meyer established Morf3D as a means of providing high-value supply chain support for the aerospace and defense industries. The model became so successful that not only were several other AM service bureaus established in the same timeframe, but Morf3D was acquired by Nikon in 2021. We spoke to Meyer to learn more about her journey and early understanding of AM’s role in supply chains.

Surfing Industry Verticals

Meyer’s keen insight into the evolution of supply chains and their associated logistics networks wasn’t the result of divine inspiration but rather an extensive history in studying and working in supply chains. Given her foresight into the future of globalized manufacturing, it’s worth examining her latest endeavor, MatterProviders, a company dedicated to material management for the AM printing sector. spoke to Meyer to learn more.

Michelle Meyer, with her deep-rooted passion and extensive experience in supply chain management, embarked on her journey in college. Unlike many of her peers who stumbled into the field, Meyer was one of the rare few who deliberately pursued supply chain management.

“I am still one of the relatively rare people who discovered supply chain management as an actual domain of knowledge and use and then proceeded to have a career in that. It was actually something I found in college. They didn’t call it Supply Chain Management at the time; it was a Transportation and Logistics degree combined with Operations Management. The university programs have progressed, over the course of about 20 years, to become what we know of today as the Supply Chain Management programs that big universities run today.”

Her professional journey continued across various industries, from chemicals at Union Carbide, to automotive OEM manufacturing at Gates Corporation, where she played a pivotal role in managing and distributing products globally. At IBM, Meyer evaluated the tech giant’s global supply chains, performing internal analyses and modifying the logistics network as needed.

“If new plants or new product lines were being introduced by IBM, we’d look at where we were going to produce them, what did our supply base look like, et cetera,” Meyer said.

Meyer’s expertise expanded further during her tenure in consulting, where she was involved in large system implementation programs across different aspects of the supply chain. Throughout her career, this has included Arthur Andersen Business Consulting, Hitachi Consulting, Gartner, and Price Waterhouse Cooper.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work in as I mentioned, chemicals, automotive, high tech, and consumer products, food and beverage, healthcare, large industrial manufacturers, aerospace and defense,” Meyer said. “The supply chain career can really carry you across a lot of places if you want it to or you can dedicate a whole career to a particular industry. It’s something that really gives you a good opportunity to—I call it ‘surfing’ the industry verticals in the supply chain.”

Digitizing the Supply Chain

Meyer’s foray into the 3D printing industry was sparked by a realization during her work with aerospace and defense companies. Recognizing the industry’s shift towards AM and the need for robust supply chain support, Meyer found the perfect intersection to leverage her expertise.

“I was working with a large aerospace and defense manufacturer that has kind of led the way in terms of the development and investment into additive. It was a conversation with one of them where they had clearly made very large investments and were committing to additive and driving, making, designing and building and producing parts using the technology. And just like with their other large manufacturing supply chains, the VP of manufacturing basically said, ‘At some point, I’m not going to be able to make the investment to buy the next machine.’ You know, at some point a company stops spending capital and needs partners to help with that. They were going to be looking for supply chain partners to make those investments, learning additive manufacturing and being able to produce parts so that they could expand the capabilities across the supply chain.”

At the same time, Meyer was hoping to actually craft her own firm. This led to the foundation of Morf3D, aimed at providing high-value supply chain services in the AM space. She then selected Ivan Madera as her co-founder, and took on Melissa Orme as her Chief Technology Officer.

“Really, from the beginning, Morf3D was a supply chain play, growing with the additive manufacturing industry and providing that supply chain extension and services to those large manufacturers,” Meyer said. “My underlying goal was also to build a new kind of company, showing how companies could look, feel, and operate differently.  This isn’t ‘just business’, this is about building a ‘just’ business”.

However, her journey was not without its challenges. A partnership gone awry due to integrity issues forced Meyer to make a tough decision: walking away from Morf3D. This setback, however, turned into an opportunity when she received a payout from the company’s buyout by Nikon, which she invested in continuing to incubate MatterProviders.

Materials for AM

MatterProviders is not just another company in the AM space. It represents the culmination of Meyer’s experience and vision for the future of additive manufacturing. The company focuses on both ends of the supply chain spectrum, catering to large manufacturers needing material logistical support and materials manufacturers seeking efficient delivery systems.

“All of the large manufacturers and contract services that are beginning to produce parts all over the world at volumes are going to alter the supply chains that need to support them. We’ve created MatterProviders to be involved in that next evolution in the industry,” Meyer said. “Beginning as a consultancy, we are having the supply chain discussions and are aiming to provide services to the large manufacturers that are beginning to produce in volume and need that supply chain support for their materials. We’re also working with the materials manufacturers to help establish operations that position them to be able to deliver their materials more efficiently and effectively.”

Depending on the needs of the client, MatterProviders provides supply chain design and development, as well as logistics operations support. The company is still early on in its journey, but, eventually, the company aims to work with customers to design and develop their materials supply chains, and potentially offering ancillary services or parts.

“Primarily, we’re starting with materials because that’s where the biggest pain point is today—and the waste stream is included in that,” Meyer explained. “We intend to design and develop what those supply chains need to look like or to support the manufacturing supply chains that they’ve built—where they’re producing parts—and integrate those logistics services for them. That would be a spectrum of services, including planning their materials, managing the transportation and logistics, storing their materials and delivering to their manufacturing centers.”

Meyer envisions a future where material supply chains are streamlined and efficient, significantly reducing lead times, waste, and environmental impact. The ideal scenario she describes involves high-volume material orders stored in proximity to manufacturing centers, ensuring swift and sustainable delivery.

“Based on your manufacturing volume and how many parts you’re going to produce, we would plan and identify the volume of material that you’re going to need and work with your material providers to give them that demand signal of what volumes are coming. So that the higher volume of material that you order from your material providers lowers the overall total cost and the cost per pound for them, as well as the transportation costs. It’s a more sustainable and environmental transportation solution as well,” Meyer elaborated. “And then we would have that volume positioned literally in a warehouse for the manufacturer based on the service levels they require – a few minutes, hours, or 1-2 days away.”

MatterProviders’ long-term strategy is not unlike that of Amazon or Ocado, in which local distribution centers attempt to solve the last-mile problem associated with just-in-time delivery. In the case of Ocado, which 3D prints many parts for its own warehouse robots, the company relies on a virtual distribution center to connect a network of smaller warehouses. This setup enables access to a more extensive inventory while maintaining the economies of scale crucial for cost management. Each warehouse holds only part of the inventory, with products being shipped between warehouses to meet local demand. The system, akin to distributed storage, is managed by the virtual center using machine learning, which continuously refines stock balance and, as claimed by Ocado, helps in reducing waste.

One can see such a setup eventually integrated with 3D printing service bureaus themselves, where not only are materials efficiently managed and delivered to these providers but their parts are also shipped via distributed warehouses. Of course, one can imagination Ocado-like robots shuttling around the warehouses and service bureaus alike.

Despite the lack of targeted funding for developing these supply chains, Meyer remains optimistic. She believes the growing need and potential customer base will naturally lead to the establishment of robust supply chain partners like MatterProviders.

“I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about how funding mechanisms work, particularly through development support systems, grants, and government programs that channel money. I’ve noticed that most of this funding is directed towards hardware technology companies, software technology companies, or the manufacturers themselves. This makes sense because we aim to enhance the industry’s capacity to produce more, especially in the United States. To achieve this, we need more machinery and manufacturers capable of making parts. However, finding funding specifically for building supply chains is challenging,” Meyer concluded. “Nonetheless, I believe that once there is a sufficient number of potential customers with needs, it will naturally lead to the creation of a supply chain partner. This is why we’re discussing this topic early, just as we did with Morf3D. Our goal is to establish a strong business foundation, strategy, service level, and partnership from the outset.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the necessary funding will arise, given the large array of programs that the Biden Administration has enabled. Demonstrating this most recently was the announcement from the White House that the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program would be investing over $530 million into ten emerging U.S. innovation hubs to boost sectors like semiconductor manufacturing, clean energy, and sustainable textiles. It’s only a matter of time that a networked digital supply chain emerges from these efforts.  Another example is the National Defense Industrial Strategy issued by the Department of Defense – where the number one priority is—you guessed it—resilient supply chains.

Meyer’s journey and the inception of MatterProviders underscore a crucial aspect of the AM industry: the need for innovative supply chain solutions. As the 3D printing sector continues to grow and evolve, companies like MatterProviders are essential in ensuring that the supply chain keeps pace, driving efficiency, sustainability, and success along with the hardware, software, and materials themselves.

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