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3D printing has continued to hit the headlines with some fascinating use cases, such as the architects in Amsterdam that have started work on a 3D printed house.

According to Hedwig Heinsman of Dus, the architects responsible for the project, the building industry is one of the most inefficient and polluting industries out there. With 3D printing boasting zero waste, lower transport costs and recyclable materials, this could very well be a first glimpse of the future of house building.

In fact, we can see already what that potential future may look like at scale with an example from China, where a company recently used a giant printer set to print out ten houses in just one day.

[…] The stand-alone one-story houses in the Shanghai Hi-Tech Industrial Park look just like ordinary buildings. They were created using an intelligent printing array in east China’s city of Suzhou.

The array consists of four printers that are 10 meters wide and 6.6 meters high and use multi-directional automated sprays. The sprays emit a combination of cement and construction waste that is used to print building walls layer-by-layer.

Ma Yihe, the inventor of the printers, said he and his team are especially proud of their core technology of quick-drying cement.

This technology allows for the printed material to dry rapidly. Ma has been cautious not to reveal the secrets of this technology.

We’ve also seen a Dutch hospital successfully performing the first operation replacing a patient’s skull with a 3D-printed version. This is the latest example of where 3D printing is having a significant impact in the medical field, with its capacity to quickly and cheaply prototype customer parts in helping patients across the globe.

These are just two areas where the process of 3D printing is revolutionizing the way in which we solve the world’s greatest problems, and it’s clear that The Netherlands and China are setting the benchmark here for what can be achieved.

I’ve said before that the impact on the manufacturing industry will be huge. I even joked that we could soon see the world’s first printed house, and now it’s already a reality.

This shows the speed at which this technology is disrupting a number of industries.

3D printing does face some barriers before it is more widely adopted. One of those is the implementation of information systems that protect the integrity of the new manufacturing process. But longer term, 3D printing has a revolutionary potential in certain areas of manufacturing by changing how things are produced, the factories of the future and supply chains.

If we look at how this is going to affect the supply chain, the impact could be quite dramatic.

In general, 3D printing will create demand for smaller, local, and more standard premises. The future ramifications for the supply chain, however, are enormous. In the traditional way that goods are manufactured, products are mass produced and then the manufactured goods are pushed out and distributed through warehouse networks to customers. This has a very large carbon footprint, high transportation costs, long lead times and little flexibility to react to changing customer demands.

Factories of the future

If you look at the 3D printing supply chain picture of the future, it is very different.

Demand will be pulled by the customer, which will then trigger products to be locally printed and distributed.

In this scenario, the carbon footprint is a lot smaller, there are low transport costs, and the lead time and reactiveness are short. In most cases, the elements can also be melted and recycled, which is far better for the environment. Taken to the extreme this could result in customers having printers on their own premises with blueprints downloaded on demand – eliminating the supply chain altogether!

Both the immediate opportunities and the future scenarios I have outlined for 3D printing in previous posts create new challenges, in particular ensuring the quality and authenticity of products. This will require important changes in the way that information systems – in particular enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications – support the manufacturing process.

Ensuring product quality

A good example of where the technology can be used to good effect right now is where a customer requests the repair of an obsolete product for which spares can no longer be obtained – with 3D printing these can be printed on demand.

Rather than keeping safety stock on hand, parts could be printed as needed from a stock of materials. In the oil and gas industry, for example, where space for parts inventory is limited, this is very attractive.

One of the key challenges holding this back is that, since many companies operate in heavily-regulated industries, the quality aspect of printing spares locally needs to be better understood publicly before it can replace traditional methods of manufacturing.

To address these challenges, manufacturers will need to employ ERP systems in new ways, including:

  • Having an ERP system with document control capabilities will be more crucial than before. You will have to ensure that the blueprints that you make available, or create, are of the correct revision and that the correct material is used in the 3D printing process. From a development point of view, this could be interesting, in that you will create a prototype item using 3D printing for a finished part that will always be 3D printed – whereas at the moment 3D printing is mainly used in the prototype phase and the finished part is manufactured traditionally.
  • 3D printing constitutes process manufacturing so manufacturers using 3D printing will need process manufacturing software in their ERP application. You are taking specific alloys or materials and combining them through a process that may involve heat or other chemical reactions in order to create something new. Even if you think of yourself as a discrete manufacturer, you will become a process manufacturer as well if you engage in 3D printing.
  • It will also be more important than ever to maintain records of the chemical components and constituents that each SKU or part is made of. And while inventory for spare parts may be reduced, an enterprise application will need sufficient forecasting functionality to determine the amount of raw materials that will be consumed over a given period, and how much usage the 3D printer will receive.
  • The 3D printer will need to be set up as a workstation in ERP, with elements of enterprise asset management (EAM) present to ensure consistent maintenance has been performed on it. You will also need to be able to facilitate regular quality checks of parts produced so you can determine that they conform to specifications and functional requirements.

The problem of authenticity

3D printing will also bring new risks for intellectual property. Today, it is true that any competitor or other organization can reverse-engineer one of your products.

But with 3D printing, that product or part can be replicated much more rapidly since there is no need to develop tools, dies, fixtures, jigs, etc. There are a few implications to consider here. It will be difficult to determine whether you are purchasing genuine replacement parts for industrial equipment. And equipment manufacturers may have a harder time determining equipment they have sold to customers as genuine parts and is therefore under warranty or not.

For products produced using 3D printing to be authentic, the customer needs to be assured that the product is from the true supplier as opposed to a fake copy. So part serialization will become far more important than ever before.

The type of serialization functionality normally associated with highly-regulated industries like aerospace and defense and medical devices may become attractive to industry at large and adopted far more broadly.

This can be achieved in the ERP system so that when the blueprints are downloaded for printing, there is a serial ID attached to it that corresponds to the serial ID in the ERP application.

This has to work like this to ensure that any warranty issues are not compromised and ensure that quality standards are maintained.

Just like any new technology that gains traction in business, 3D printing will impact many parts of the manufacturing business. The above are just a few observations on the changes 3D printing could bring, and the ways that information systems will need to be employed to overcome the inevitable challenges which will arise.

And, as we saw earlier in the example from China, disruptive technologies move fast nowadays. You can see what’s now possible in this video report – and consider the implications for the ERP backbone requirement to support such scale.

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