By Kent Firestone, COO, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing
3D Printing’s Present and Future
Impact on the Supply Chain
Companies can simplify inventory and respond more quickly to short-turn production needs while cutting costs.
There was a time not too long ago that the latest 3D-printing achievement—a car, satellite antenna,
or even a house—dominated news cycles. The hype
bolstered awareness of the technology, but didn’t truly
demonstrate 3D printing’s full impact—namely, its
business impact. Increasingly, the technology’s true
potential is being realized by more companies as they
integrate it into their manufacturing processes.
One particular benefit of the technology is how it is
reshaping supply chains. 3D printing has yet to completely
revolutionize the entire supply chain, as some predicted
at the height of the technology’s hype cycle, but it
nonetheless has made a dramatic impact.
To affect supply chains even further, 3D printing has
to address a few hurdles, like material and equipment
costs and automation. Another obstacle is one companies
must overcome internally. Rather than focusing on
3D printing’s technical value, manufacturers should
better understand its business value. Still, there are
many benefits to implementing 3D printing into your
manufacturing process, and companies that have done so
are noticing seven key benefits.
1. On-Demand Inventory
The days of massive warehouses containing parts
and equipment collecting dust can be left behind,
because 3D printing enables a digital warehouse where
companies can store their inventory and design files on
the Cloud or flash drive. This frees up storage space
that could be utilized for other needs and helps lower
Replacing physical inventory with a digital inventory
may be a challenge for some companies that don’t
have the requisite 3D-printing equipment or expertise
in-house. With the infrastructure and capacity to
accommodate high volume production and quick
turnaround times, global 3D-printing service providers
can provide support in this area when needed.
2. Production Where You Need It
Just as parts can be stored digitally, design files can be
sent securely across the globe to a convenient production
location. Companies can send files to the nearest
3D-printing service bureau or qualified production facility
to have it made, even on short notice. With a consumer
landscape that relies increasingly on digital efforts, and
will continue to do so, it’s time to break down production
barriers and augment the flexibility of your supply chain.
Companies that do so will not only lower their carbon
footprints but also reduce logistics costs.
3. Less Material = Lower Costs
A complex, customized part won’t necessarily be more
expensive than others. Unlike traditional manufacturing,
a 3D-printed part’s design complexity isn’t always
connected to its price. Because 3D printing builds
parts additively, layer by layer, it inherently uses less
material than subtractive manufacturing methods like
CNC machining, because it only uses material that is
absolutely necessary to build up.
4. Customize, Customize, Customize
Customization is one of 3D printing’s biggest benefits.
The technology can easily build geometrically complex
parts. But how does this impact the supply chain?
The technology offers mass customization as a brand-new business model. It’s one that’s driven by end-customers, dictated by what they need and when, so it
helps achieve a lower inventory cost. In fact, it has the
potential to turn the supply chain into an essentially
For instance, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing
worked with the St. Louis University Department
of Neurological Surgery to 3D print nearly identical
replications of patients’ skulls and brains (see Figure
1). Generating these models helped to identify and
overcome surgical challenges.
5. Consolidation and Complexity
3D printing can significantly simplify production through
part consolidation, allowing multiple subassemblies
to be combined into and built as a single component.
This minimizes assembly time and simplifies supplier
and inventory management, thereby decreasing costs
and increasing productivity. By designing for a part’s
function, thanks to the technology’s design freedom,
engineers can incorporate features directly into the
component and save with shorter lead times.