Logistics Plan Needed to Make 3D Manufacturing Real

May 23, 2013
Omni-channel retailers may someday let you make your own thingamabobs, but details are still trapped in 2D.

Remember when we had only four TV channels? Now we live in an omni-channel world where you can not only watch a program on making left-handed thingamabobs, but you can broadcast your own approach to this art, via Youtube. Our omni-channel mindset is now breaking the fourth wall of TV and influencing the logistics channels that bring you the products of the advertisers that those programs were brought to you by.

And just as TV viewers are now starting to create their own programming for widespread consumption, technology will eventually make it possible for them to create the products they see advertised. Welcome to the next phase in our omni-channel culture: 3D manufacturing—a.k.a., 3D printing, a.k.a., additive manufacturing, or just plain AM.

We recently reported how CVS Caremark is redesigning its supply chain to meet the needs of more diverse markets, including a growing market of seniors requiring medical and pharmaceutical care. This pharmaceutical chain wants to be an omni-channel source of products for customers in ever-diversifying markets. They're going from a standardized logistics platform to offering product assortments tailored to each store. How long will it take for them to have 3D manufacturing kiosks? They didn’t even mention that, though.

Analysts at Jones Lang LaSalle probably wouldn’t be surprised if they did. This investment management and real estate services firm recently put out a report stating that demand for same-day delivery and ship-from-store models will soon guide retailers down the road to offering 3D manufacturing capability.

3D was actually one of ten trends they see shaping retail. Some of the others are Internet sales legislation, category-killing digital downloads of books and music, pop-up temporary stores where large brand retailers can showcase new products to create buzz, and of course, omni-channel retailing.

In JLL’s vision of omni-channel, they see 3D manufacturing changing retail to me-tail. This actually gives brick & mortar stores a new reason for being. Consumers will get to walk in and design their own “uber-customized” products.”

“As 3D printing matures and decreases in price, it could mean that retailer could promise ‘No wait time’ to bring products to market,” JLL predicts.

Wohlers Associates predicts that the additive manufacturing industry will be valued at $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

But leave it to the realists in logistics to bring uplifting forecasts back down to earth. One of those is Alex Scott. He’s a Ph.D. student in supply chain management at Penn State University who formerly worked in several supply chain planning capacities at IBM. He is also a member of MH&L’s Editorial Advisory Board. Alex believes this technology is for real, but he also believesthere are two main roadblocks to the more widespread use of AM by industry: capabilities and costs. 

The range of usable finished goods is limited by the current ability to create products with only one or two materials, he says. Other challenges are the limited number of materials (e.g. powders) that can be used, and the lack of reproducibility of the processes.

“However, all of this is being researched around the world, so I think we can expect these capabilities to rapidly improve over the next decade,” he writes in an upcoming column for MH&L. “With regards to costs, there are two primary cost drivers: machines and materials.  Machines can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to a million dollars.  As AM becomes more researched and widespread, we can expect the price to come down as the companies that create them achieve some economies of scale.”

Look for Alex's column in MH&L's July issue, along with a feature on AM by Industry Week's Travis Hessman. In the meantime, I’m sure there are early adopters who’ve turned their basements into AM factories to serve very specialized markets. I wonder if they’ll overnight me my left-handed thingamabob or if I’ll have to pick it up at my corner CVS?

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