Many industries rely on physical inventory to meet aftermarket needs and have accordingly built up global supply and distribution networks.
Automotive parts, for example, are produced in great quantities with the ubiquity of the personal vehicle creating great demand around the world for a variety of makes and models, each of which will eventually need some parts replaced due to wear and tear, accidents and impacts, or another end to useful component lifetime. The unpredictability of human behavior and what actually happens to vehicles in use means there is no perfect projection formula to ensure that the right stock of parts will be available as needed in helpful proximity to any given site of use. Storing parts for the possibility of their use requires a generally large physical footprint, as well as facility upkeep and the personnel to keep it running.
Expensive, massive warehouses of stuff sit in wait to supply demand that may or may not come -- and may or may not be localized enough to be helpful for areas of demand.
More than a buzzword, the underlying principle is that rather than stock a physical warehouse with mass quantities of spare parts that may or may not be in demand at any given time, including parts for now-obsolete original products, design files for components can be stored digitally and made on demand. Industry 4.0 is picking up steam, impacting the manufacturing industry end to end as digitization becomes more of a norm.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is taking its place among the agile technologies enabling the adoption of digital inventories.
In digital inventory solutions, the warehouse itself is shelved in favor of an on-demand production facility located near the source of need. Digital files sent securely from the manufacturer ensure OEM-accurate designs, including in facilities across the world from the original supplier. 3D printing these files on-site on a reliable system with proven repeatability in quality, and post-processing the parts to ensure accurate geometries and surface finish, lessens the need for global shipping. The implications in logistics are significant, reducing the time a customer waits for a needed part while also cutting down the carbon footprint of freight.
In reality, the transition to digital inventory and on-site, on-demand spare parts production is still just that: in transition.
Validation through each step of this workflow requires careful examination and the establishment of new best practices to be instituted. Among the critical considerations are:
Sending digital files around the world is a fantastic time-saver, but brings with it a wealth of concerns from an IP perspective. Preserving IP is critical for any business operation, and all the more so for any mission-critical industry such as defense or aerospace, both of which have shown deep interest in the adoption of additive manufacturing. Several companies are tackling issues of IP security specific to the needs of digital manufacturing, such as Identify3D, which ensures authorized use of files and traceability throughout the entire production process. On a similar track is LEO Lane, which strives to ensure the security and consistency of its users’ digital inventory solutions.
Consistency of part is a key concern; part quality needs to meet the same standards regardless of place of origin. A component 3D printed in Singapore should have the same physical characteristics as one made in San Francisco or Berlin. In the maritime and oil and gas sectors, for example, DNV GL is working to build confidence through assessment and creation of documentation supporting reliability in additive manufacturing materials, processes and products.
The workforce itself is one of the most important moving parts of the production process. Training the next generations and upskilling the existing workforce are in focus today, as additive manufacturing -- indeed, many Industry 4.0 technologies -- face a significant skills gap. Additive manufacturing involves three distinct processes that require properly trained attention: design (with design for additive manufacturing, or DfAM, of rising importance), 3D printing and post-processing. Increased educational initiatives and on-the-job training and apprenticeships are being seen, but require more attention and support as the industry expands.
For any of the transition toward digital inventory to be successful, it needs to be implemented into existing as well as newly established workflows. Industry is for the most part at the beginning steps of a long journey of this adoption, as the nascent technologies and newly created procedures are in many cases still being validated and their worth proven to potential adopters.
With the global manufacturing industry representing approximately a $12 trillion opportunity, and additive manufacturing currently valued at about $7.3 billion, this journey will not be a quick one. While "disruption" is still often talked about almost synonymously with "displacement," the actual disruption for new workflows will come through discovery of areas in which additive manufacturing complements, rather than displaces, traditional manufacturing operations. By discovering best-fit applications -- e.g., injection molding, CNC and other traditional techniques continuing to account for the majority of mass production, with additive manufacturing coming into play for spare parts and on-demand delivery applications -- the right tools for the right jobs can be put to use.
When it comes to digital inventory solutions, the adoption of additive manufacturing will lead to a new picture of best practices in global manufacturing and supply chain management.
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I am entrenched in industrial 3D printing, working as a journalist in the space since 2014. I own Additive Integrity LLC, an editorial services company dedicated to the ...
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