Businesses get ready for 3D printing


If 3D printing keeps invading the industrial world, logistics companies will have to re-invent themselves

Time to prepare

Let us first debunk a myth: 3D is not at all new, nor is it revolutionary. Back in the 1980s, scientists and engineers were already experimenting with so-called additive manufacturing – the not-so-catchy synonym for 3D printing. However, in those days they were merely printing prototypes, mainly because 3D printers were incredibly slow.

But that has changed. Nowadays 3D printers reach speeds of several layers per minute. That’s almost as quick as a conventional machine like a milling cutter. In addition, modern 3D printers can master a broad range of materials, like metals, plastics, ceramics and even organic material. Some state-of-the-art printers can even combine several raw materials – just like an inkjet printer combines several inks to form all the colours of the rainbow.

In light of advancing technology, the Flemish Logistics Institute (VIL), which aims to encourage Flemish companies to develop and implement innovative logistics concepts and technologies, has begun a project to help local businesses adapt to the changing landscape.

Infinite freedom

The main advantage of 3D printing over conventional manufacturing is that it’s inherently economical where the material is concerned. Objects are created bottom-up, layer by layer so not a single gram is lost. Compare this with conventional manufacturing, which works top-down and creates objects out of a larger quantity of raw material, or out of a material poured into a mould. The ancient Greek sculptor Phidias carved his statues out of blocks of marble – by which he wasted a lot of expensive material. Ideally, a 3D printer doesn’t leave any waste.

Just like a 2D printer uses ink to print text, drawings and photos, a 3D printer uses raw materials to create 3D structures. The printer head spurts the material – in liquid or in powder form – in the desired pattern, layer by layer. Some 3D printers use a laser head to immediately melt the powder and make it solid. Because a 3D printer spurts the material in separate, very thin layers, almost any design is possible.

Another advantage is that the designer has almost infinite freedom to create complex pieces like the one pictured above. Metal objects with curved holes inside can now be produced as one single object – whereas before they had to be made in different milled parts, after which the parts had to be welded together. That’s why 3D printing originated as a technique to produce high-grade prototypes, for example for dental implants, for prosthetics and for aviation components.

Decentralised production

Several economic sectors should prepare themselves to incorporate 3D printing in their business model. One sector that really should think get ready now, before 3D printing is all around the manufacturing industry, is logistics. 

Our goal is to create a business model that incorporates 3D printing as a cornerstone technology

- Luc Pleysier

While the conventional logistics sector still relies on the distribution of goods produced in a centralised setting – one factory makes all the spare parts and sends them to all the stores in the chain – 3D printing makes it possible to radically decentralise production. A chain store provided with a 3D printer can print its spare parts on its own, based on instructions from the mother factory. In the ideal scenario, every chain store in a particular company has its own 3D printer, so the company no longer needs a third party that controls the delivery of the goods.

The VIL agrees that this could be a nightmare scenario for the sector. That’s why it has initiated a new project to “map the opportunities of 3D printing related to the logistics of spare parts”: in other words, to come up with a plan to prevent the logistics sector becoming totally redundant in the event that every small firm in the near future is able to print its own spare parts.

With 11 logistics companies fromFlanders(including bpost, DHL Express, Volvo Group Logistics Services and Van Hool), the VIL wants to create a roadmap based on a thorough analysis of the market and the available technology. “We want to discover which 3D printing technology might be the most suitable for which kind of products,” says Luc Pleysier, programme manager at the VIL.

“Afterwards, we will study the impact on the different logistics processes, the infrastructure and operations and services like assembly and stock control. Our overall goal is to create a business model that incorporates 3D printing as a cornerstone technology in our economy.”

Pleysier admits that 3D printing could be a threat to the current logistics sector, with the conventional supply chain. “Consultancy firm McKinsey expects that by 2025, between 30 and 50% of all parts and spare parts will be produced by 3D printing. This will result in a cost saving of between 40 and 55% for the eventual buyer compared to conventional manufactured and distributed products. That changing market will have consequences for the entire logistics chain: Local production will create a lesser need for storage and the flow of goods and distributing channels will change.”

Businesses in Flanders must be ready for 3D printing

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