Is 3D printing revolutionizing supply chains?

Countless newspaper articles, tech blogs, and proclaimed experts argue that 3D printing is about to turn manufacturing supply chains on the head. There is little doubt that additive manufacturing (the more precise term for 3D printing) will have its impact, but it will be limited to niches for many years to come. The more interesting question is to identify and transform the 3D print-ready niches.

A world of 3D printing

It is essential to understand that 3D printing is not one technology. There is a world of different print technologies, which can print different materials. The most common materials are different forms of plastics (or polymers), but today we can also print metal, ceramics, wood, and many other materials. We can even print biological mass and research promises to 3D-print organs in the future. Researchers at ETH, MIT, and elsewhere are developing “4D printing”, which basically means printing a product that has the ability to change its properties after printing (for example shape or color). There are also promising experiments with printing electronic circuits.

There are many 3D printing enthusiast around the world. The rapidly declining price of polymer printers for the consumer market may explain a lot of the hype around 3D printing. The price for a simple printer has dropped down from several thousand dollars to below $1000. Today, you can order a fully functional polymer 3D printer from China for $150 (note that transportation costs and taxes will cost you more than the printer). That means that almost everyone in the industrialized part of the world can afford buying a 3D printer. If every household can buy print designs online and print parts on demand, which supply chains will be “revolutionized”? With the many limitations that remain in consumer-market 3D printer technology, I am inclined to say only one: The supply chain for 3D printers and polymers, which shows a promising growth potential.

3D printing moving beyond rapid prototyping

I printed my first 3D printed part in 2002. It was a prototype of a windshield for a jet bike, drawn in AutoCAD and “printed” in a small hard-plastic part (fused deposition modeling). It had roughly the shape of the final windshield, but it was not transparent and its finish was very rough. My prototype saw daylight two decades after the world’s first 3D printed parts (see Wikipedia for the history of 3D printing).

There are many benefits of 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Prototypes can be in small scale, do not need to be in the final material, do not always have to function, and the finish can be uneven. The idea of rapid prototyping is quickly to get a visual and physical impression of the possible product. 3D printing for rapid prototyping drives down costs of the design phase and allow designers to experiment with quicker cycles and therefore more variants. 15 years after my first part, rapid prototyping is still the by far most used professional application of 3D printing. For example, it accounts for about 90 % of 3D printing applications in the automotive industry. The use of 3D printing for rapid prototyping is here to stay.

During the past few years, however, we see more and more final parts and products being 3D printed. Here are a few examples

Toys, guns, aircraft parts, prosthetics, pizzas, fetus models, clothes, cars, and houses (!) are surely impressive examples of seemingly limitless possibilities. However, looking beyond these attention-grabbing projects, most 3D printed products today are small gadgets such as cell phone cases, flowerpots, pen holders, key chains, whistles, bottle openers, collector action figures, and so on. The only effect the latter type of products will have on established manufacturing supply chains is increasing the demand for traditionally manufactured gadgets with better quality.

Where 3D printing has potential

The famous 3D-printed GE fuel nozzle is the most referred  industrial case example (see picture above). It is indeed a good example. In 2012, GE started piloting the metal printing of fuel nozzles. It reduced the bill-of-materials from 20 from several suppliers to one part manufactured in-house. Instead of a month lead-time, GE now can now produce it in a week. Of course, that has completely changed the established supply chains. The 3D-printed nozzle is also 25 % lighter than its predecessor is, and therefore saves fuel costs for the airlines. Furthermore, it operates in a challenging environment of high pressure and heat, and is still five times as durable as the conventionally manufactured nozzle. Today, the 3D-printed nozzle is mass-produced in the GE Auburn plant on 28 additive manufacturing machines. The Federal Aviation Administration cleared it for operation in 2015 and today it flies.

The GE fuel nozzle example shows that 3D printing is promising when you have parts with complex geometries. Traditional subtractive machining operations is difficult and expensive for such geometries. 3D printing can also provide product designs that are impossible with traditional approaches, such as complex internal structures. This ability can allow more lightweight solutions and more efficient liquid or gas transport.

Other successful 3D printing applications are usually characterized by a high degree of customization. Medical parts and personal health industries are typical examples, where prosthetics, bone structures, orthodontics, hearing aids, and glass frames can be customized perfectly to individual needs. A large part of this industry has already been “revolutionized”. For example, all hearing aid implants in Switzerland are 3D printed today.

3D printing is also promising for spare part production, which is indispensable for the after-sales services of all types of machines, electronic products, and furniture. Demand for spare-parts are often characterized by high variation, low volumes, and high volatility. With 3D printing, a service supplier can print spare parts on demand close to where it is needed, when it is needed. A main challenge—besides the technical limitations of 3D printing technology—is the preparation and management of the digital thread of the product from development to end-of-life. Earlier CAD-drawings are not compatible with 3D printing. A related showstopper is the increased risk of IPR theft and counterfeited products when everything goes digital.

Note that manufacturing of tools such as jigs, fixtures, molds, and dies for traditional manufacturing processes share some of these characteristics and are therefore also good candidates for 3D printing. All the above examples (expect the house) are relatively small-sized products. The build room in 3D printers sets the limitations of how large the products can be. All examples also have medium-to-high value. Low-value products can usually be stored without a big cost penalty, making 3D printing less lucrative for mass produced commodity goods.

To print or not to print

There is a considerable overestimation of how much disruption 3D printing will bring to supply chains. Many of the positive reports are based on poorly designed questionnaires distributed by consultants to a low number of their biased clients. Other public reports are white papers and blog posts from 3D printing vendors and service companies. Both vendors and consultancies use conclusions of “disruption” to build credence goods they can sell to concerned managers. Practitioners have good reasons to remain skeptical.

3D printing has already disrupted a few supply chains in personal health industries, but the big volumes of manufactured products will not be 3D printed in the near future. When both volumes and quality requirements are high, today’s 3D printing technology is simply not economical or competitive. Industries that can use polymers have an advantage, but the more interesting industrial application is metal printing. Metal printing costs and speed must be slashed by a factor of 10 to 100 and quality must be greatly improved before it becomes competitive for the large majority of industrial applications.

One question is who will do the printing. With the expensive price of a state-of-the-art metal printer (EOS or Stratasys sell them for $100.000 to $500.000), few companies are willing to invest. Therefore, start-up companies sell 3D printing capacity (for example, Shapeways, Sculpteo and and others act as brokers for available 3D printing capacity (check out ETH spin off Such external services allow companies to experiment and learn about the possibilities and limitations of 3D printing.


In conclusion, 3D printing is more a complement than a competitor of current manufacturing supply chains. 3D printing is more promising for part production than for finished goods production. It is most interesting for parts characterized by:

  • complex geometries;
  • high degree of customization;
  • high variation;
  • low volumes;
  • high volatility;
  • small-size; and
  • medium-to-high value.

I am pragmatically optimistic about the opportunities for 3D printing. A few supply chains are already disrupted, some new supply chains appear, but most supply chains will hardly be affected by 3D printing in the next decade. Yet, for those products that have positive business cases for 3D printing, the disruption will be significant and can come fast. If 3D printing just wins a small fraction of conventional manufacturing, that fraction will be a multi-billion-dollar market. Therefore, practitioners should keep an eye on the development and consider if and how 3D printing can be used in their production.

Let me end by declaring that I am a fan of 3D printing. If we would be able to 3D-print effectively and efficiently, we would have shorter supply chains with less waste and inventory, less strain on the environment, more design possibilities and more customization, and hopefully lower costs. In its niches, 3D printing holds the potential to realize the ultimate lean supply chains.

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One thought on “Is 3D printing revolutionizing supply chains?

  1. Where 3D printing will find niches, like specialized geometries or customized components, given that the main constraint on printers is build tray size, how can we think of 3D printing in the context of traditional operations frameworks? Example: “batch shop” or “job shop” components with automation. Seems like it can have elements from many precedents.

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