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3D Printing in Your Supply Chain: Ingenuity, Elasticity, Resiliency

By Pete Basiliere - Founder, Monadnock Insights Supply chain professionals in manufacturing require spare parts that perform as expected. While the global pandemic has illuminated their supply chain vulnerabilities, it has reinforced 3D printing's strategic role in the supply chain. Think of 3D printing as one more tool in your toolkit, not only fulfilling current demand but also producing your customers' ideal designs.


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  • 3D printing uses include new product development, production tooling, jigs and fixtures, and finished goods manufacturing

  • 3D printing reduces the capital tied up in your supply chain — work-in-progress and finished goods inventories, and creates additional plant capacity — by producing parts on demand

  • 3D printing of finished goods brings a layer of manageable risk with a thorough evaluation of potential supply chain partners


Military supply chains are the longest in the world, more extended and more complex than even remote oil & gas or mining supply chains. There is no doubt that military supply chains are critical; indeed, they are life-and-death. Military organizations worldwide have been researching, testing, and using 3D printing in their supply chains for decades.

3D printing by the military during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how the technology rises to a very different life-and-death situation: the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by US forces stationed in South Korea, a hotspot at the beginning of the pandemic. “Maker” 3D printers, which could only produce seven masks per day, were used at first.

To overcome that limitation, the US Army and Navy developed a supply chain that used industrial-grade 3D printers to manufacture hundreds of masks daily. The result was "a good test of how we can respond to the needs of the fleet in an emergency," according to Ross Wilhelm, a principal technologist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Centre. "We hope this serves as a model for the Department of Defense commands worldwide."1

The model that Wilhelm referred to, coupled service member ingenuity, included design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) techniques, the development of multiple designs, testing of multiple 3D printers and different materials, and ultimately the high volume production of PPE. Therein lie examples of the potential uses of 3D printing in your supply chain: innovative employees, new product development, tooling, jigs and fixtures, and finished goods production.

3D Printing Defined

The hype surrounding 3D printing some ten years ago led to many misconceptions about the technology - and inordinately high stock prices. Not surprisingly, the prices came down to earth, and laypeople were disillusioned to learn what 3D printing could do was not what the media said. So, what, exactly, is 3D printing?

3D printing is the additive process of joining materials to create objects based on digital models. The joining occurs layer by layer, with one layer of material added to another in a continuous process. This additive process distinguishes 3D printing from subtractive and formative manufacturing technologies such as machining, casting, and molding. The objects are the 3D printer’s physical output, created using digital models, typically computer-aided design (CAD) files and scan data.

Many engineers and others will tell you that "additive manufacturing" is a more accurate term, and it is, in industrial applications, but most businesspeople know the process as "3D printing." This distinction is essential when you seek management support for 3D printing in your operation. For example, a chief finance officer focusing on revenue and cost is not interested in definitional subtleties, whereas a manufacturing manager responsible for producing quality products certainly is.

Similarly, your audience many not realize that the ISO/ASTM standards organization recognizes seven core 3D printing technologies. The distinctions are important when considering 3D printing metal, plastic, composite, or other materials. Unlike a CNC machine that can work with plastics and metals, most 3D printers have a narrow and exclusive range of printable materials.

3D Printing Defined

Moreover, vendors have developed proprietary versions based on the ISO/ASTM standards. Within metals alone, there are 50 versions, with the latest being Xerox’s liquid metal 3D printing technology. Given the broad range of capabilities and materials, your 3D printing journey should begin with the end in mind: What you want to make determines the technology that can produce the part.

3D Printing Opportunities

The global pandemic highlighted the vulnerabilities in every organization’s supply chain, some with devastating results. Indeed, a Gartner survey of business continuity management professionals found that 3 in 4 have declared an emergency and that in doing so, one-third experienced significant recovery problems with one or more mission-critical business processes. How has your organization fared during the pandemic?

3D Printing

3D printing reinforces your supply chain’s resiliency by:

  • Enabling elastic, demand-based production

  • Enabling just-in-time manufacturing

  • Cutting delivery time, logistics cost, and carbon footprint

  • Supporting production at multiple, dispersed sites close to customers

  • Facilitating reshoring of work produced offshore

  • Producing spare and replacement parts

3D printing also reduces the amount of your capital that is tied up in work-in-progress and finished goods inventories, enabling manufacturing agility. But your engineers must be confident the output of a 3D printer can be relied on to perform as well as the parts made with conventional technologies do. No engineer will put their name on a piece if they have the slightest doubt about the 3D printed part. This conservatism applies not only to highly regulated parts, such as medical implants and aircraft components, but also to any piece that, if it failed, would have catastrophic (or career-ending) results.

Advances in hardware, printable materials, and design software, coupled with continuous technology innovation, make 3D printing in the supply chain viable. For example, Xerox’s liquid metal printing technology can reduce production time from days to hours. The cycle time is faster, thanks to the shorter post-processing process. The Xerox 3D liquid metal printer also reduces your part cost by using off-the-shelf alloys, the same ones that your engineers know how to use in conventional manufacturing.

A significant advantage of every 3D printing technology is the freedom of design that cannot be achieved with traditional manufacturing. You can reduce material consumption and reduce part weight – without compromising on mechanical properties. The way to accomplish this is by leveraging software tools that support DfAM. Computer-aided design software supports the generative design, also known as topology optimization, of new parts and redesign of existing ones. By allowing the software to run thousands of design iterations based on performance parameters set by your engineer, ideal almost organic designs result. The result maximizes 3D printing’s inherent ability to make items that cannot be made with any other manufacturing technology.

When combined, the latest hardware, materials, and software empower engineers to design 3D printed parts with performance characteristics they already understand and are confident using. As a result, you can shift your supply chain’s focus from lowest unit cost (UMC) to optimized cost based on performance and manufacturing your customer’s ideal design.

3D Printing Risks

In many respects, the risks associated with 3D printing in your supply chain are no different from the risks posed by vendors who use conventional manufacturing processes. Traditional suppliers – and your in-house operations – inevitably have quality problems, raw material delays, delivery issues, and financial difficulties.

3D printing of finished goods brings another layer of manageable risk, provided you understand the technology and adequately evaluate your suppliers. For example, two barriers to 3D printing’s use in manufacturing are the cost of capital and material as well as the shortage of skilled operators. These costs are a significant reason why the number of 3D print service bureaus, which could be your supply chain partners, is minuscule compared with the number of traditional manufacturing service bureaus and job shops. The lack of suppliers qualified to 3D print your items is a risk, especially when DfAM parts cannot be produced with conventional technologies.

Another risk depends on how you plan to use 3D printing technology. You may have already used an inexpensive 3D printer that extrudes plastics for rapid, iterative prototyping and, indeed, you should have. But, as you move into more advanced 3D printing technologies to make finished goods, you may have to address new questions such as the certification of the finished products.

Fortunately, 3D print service bureaus mitigate your supply chain risk. The staff will provide your engineers with valuable input on part design relative to the required materials, desired performance, and finish quality. Experienced, expert operators will produce your parts. A service bureau, even if used for a short time, negates the need for a capital investment in advanced 3D printing technology until you prove the business case.


Thirty years after the invention of the first 3D printers, and ten years since the hype peaked, 3D printing is used by manufacturers and service bureaus worldwide. Today’s parts range from the mundane (assembly jigs) to life-or-death devices (medical implants). Supply chain professionals benefit from the decades of research, trial, and error by:

  • Using inexpensive 3D printers to iterate new products rapidly and employing industrial-grade printers to create plastic and composite parts used on the factory floor before moving to metal 3D printing of finished goods

  • Beginning with the end in mind, that is, determining the technology that can produce your parts and which vendor or supply chain partner has the 3D printer that will make quality, cost-effective parts

  • Ascertaining where 3D printing fits best and offers the most significant value in your supply chain, even if that place is not the production of finished goods

  • Building your 3D printing business case by using either in-house devices when justified or supply chain partners until you know the actual capital, engineering, and manufacturing costs

Pete Basiliere

Pete Basiliere provides research-based insights on 3D printing and digital-printing hardware, software and materials, best practices, go-to-market strategies and technology trends. Before founding Monadnock Insights, Pete spent eleven years as Gartner’s Research Vice President – Additive Manufacturing. Pete’s full bio can be found here.

1. Coronavirus Defense: Navy develops 3D-printed tactical masks for US Forces Korea,

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