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Article: 3D Printing - Supply Chain Magic?

Date: 
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Imagine the time it takes to get a replacement part through a supply chain in a disaster zone or a naval vessel at war. Commercial organisations would keep a full range of spare parts near their operations however this is unrealistic in a disaster zone or on the front line during war. Far better if you can produce what you need when it is needed.

So how to overcome this conundrum? In an effort to overcome such scenarios, the aid community and some militaries are redesigning their supply chains by embracing 3D printing technology. Imagine being able to print components on demand, what impact does this have on your supply chain?

A recent article published in the Economist reports that an “American aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, took two 3D printers on a tour of duty. During the tour the crew devised and printed such items as, better funnels for oil cans (to reduce spillage), protective covers for light switches (to stop people bumping into them and inadvertently plunging the flight deck into darkness).One of the Truman’s maintenance officers reported savings of more than $40,000 in replacement parts, the printers cost $2,000 each”. The article also reports that “Israel’s air force prints plastic parts that are as strong as aluminium, in order to keep planes that date from the 1980s flying”.

The aid community have also embraced 3D printing to improve the response to disasters and development operations. Oxfam has been using 3D printing for some years, ensuring the swift production of items of equipment or replacement spare parts. For the aid community, 3D printing offers a way of mitigating delays in the supply chain through on-site fabrication to meet an identified requirement more swiftly and effectively than via the traditional supply route.

Back to the Economist article, it highlights how “the US Army Research Laboratory is developing technologies which can turn blocks of metal into printable powder within the confines of a shipping container. The purpose of this, to recycle battlefield scrap into new equipment.”

Finally, famous management guru Tom Petersa says, “Leaders win through logistics. Vision, sure. Strategy, yes. But when you go to war, you need to have both toilet paper and bullets at the right place at the right time. In other words, you must win through superior logistics.”

So will 3D printing revolutionise supply chains? Time will tell.

Heaslip, Graham. "3D printing - supply chain magic?" Galway Independent, Business section, 12 April, 2017.

Professor Graham Heaslip, GMIT