If you’re anything like me, you’re finding it increasingly difficult to be (and stay) wowed by the spectacular feats of 3D printing (and similar manufacturing methods). Not because it’s an irrelevant technology – quite the opposite.
3D printing is already an established part of the manufacturing industry, especially when it comes to R&D, prototyping, or creating one-off or discontinued parts.
If you have read my previous thoughts about 3D printing, you’ll know that I firmly believe that 3D printing is much bigger than its hype.
For example, one important (though distinctly non-glitzy) aspect of 3D printing is its effect on the way we manage our manufacturing processes. With a print-on-demand option on the table, manufacturers are seeing a fundamental change in their supply chains.
So what does this mean for manufacturers?
For one thing, it means dramatically reduced lead-times for make-to-order manufacturers – rather than stockpiling items, they can just be printed. For companies with limited capacity for parts storage, this is welcome news.
Another implication that manufacturers will have to face is the emerging need for information systems that can protect the integrity of the new manufacturing process.
For instance, competitors attempting to reverse-engineer products will be able to do so far more rapidly since there is no need to develop the likes of tools, dies, fixtures and jigs. That’s why, come 2018, 3D printing will have triggered the loss of at least $100 billion per year in IP, globally, according to Gartner.
So how can manufacturers and equipment manufacturers make sure they are buying and selling the genuine article? In my view: part serialization.
Normally something you associate with highly regulated industries like aerospace and defense, part serialization is ideally positioned to protect against piracy issues related to warranties and quality standards. I believe we will see a trend among manufacturers to embed “DNA” into their 3D-printed parts along with a corresponding development of technology to verify the DNA.
Part serialization can be accommodated in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and blueprints for printing should be paired with a serial ID that matches the one stored in the ERP application. This would offer a reliable tool for ensuring that warranties are not compromised and that quality standards are maintained.
A word of caution might be in order at this point as not just any ERP system will support 3D printing-related processes. For example, all manufacturers adopting a 3D printing strategy will need process manufacturing capabilities as part of their ERP system to ensure traceability and rapid access to the DNA or blueprint data used at different plants.
Other important factors will be keeping track of the chemicals that make up the manufactured items, powerful forecasting functionality to stock sufficient amounts of raw materials, and tracking the wear and tear of the 3D printer.
I realize that when deconstructed and examined in discrete parts, 3D printing processes might not appear all that revolutionary – many of the terms and concepts discussed above are imported from more traditional manufacturing methodologies.
So let me end this post by reaffirming that 3D printing is revolutionary. But it is a revolution that reaches much further than the remarkable examples we see on TV. It’s one whose implications will continue to keep enterprise software developers on their toes for many years to come.
(Picture at top courtesy of 3D Systems.)