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Will 3D Printing Render The Current Global Supply Chain Obsolete?

Desktop 3D printer

One of the defining features in manufacturing over the last 30 years has been the increasing prominence of the global supply chain. Brought on by improved communication infrastructure, better technology, faster transportation, and cheap overseas labour, manufacturing has turned into an international pursuit spread across the globe.

But the emergence of 3D printing could turn late 20th century/early 21st century product manufacturing on its head, and alter the global supply chain in the process.

A recent report from Transport Intelligence suggests that 3D printing could reverse the cost benefits associated with locating manufacturing operations overseas. For those of you that don’t know, 3D printing is a revolutionary technology that allows “printers” to create 3D objects using computers and raw material inputs.

We’ve reported on it a number of times here at the9billion.com, and it’s a technology that really seems to be taking off although it’s only been around for a few years. Danish architects have already produced the first 3D house and plans are already underway to produce consumer goods and electronics. Most bizarrely, a co-founder of PayPal is investing money into a 3D “bioprinted” meat.

3D printing (or “additive manufacturing” within industrial circles) allows manufacturing to occur much closer to where the demand is for a product. Since the product is manufactured by a computer, previous inputs of labour are drastically reduced, thus reducing the need for companies to secure cheap labour overseas. And since the product would be produced closer to home, transportation and storage costs would be drastically reduced.

Although this is not something that would happen immediately, it is likely that companies will gradually increase their utilization of 3D printing as the technology improves – it simply makes economic sense. The result would be a less global and (hopefully) more environmentally friendly manufacturing process. The result would be a contraction in the global supply chain for many products, although raw material inputs would still obviously need to be extracted overseas.

But still, 3D printing raises some serious questions regarding what will happen to all this excess labour. Workers who constructed houses or consumer products the traditional way would be out of work. Although there would be some new jobs created from the emergence of 3D printing, I am doubtful the creation of new jobs would balance out the loss of old jobs.

What are your thoughts on 3D printing? Do you see it as a good thing?

Image CC licensed by Creative Tools: desktop 3D printer

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  • Kyle Ephraim

    Very interesting article! As a student at the University at Buffalo working on a Business Admin degree with a concentration in Supply Chain and Operations Management, as well as a minor in Environmental Studies, I am very intrigued by the concept of 3D printing as a way to help supply chains become more green. I can imagine the spare part supply process, at a minimum, will be impacted.

    I wonder, though — how do you feel this technology will impact the Supply Chain / Logistics occupation? Seems like there is the potential for some significant changes in the future. I’m excited!

    Kyle Ephraim