Additive manufacturing technology simplifies the supply chain

March 18, 2024

Flaviana Calignano and Vincenza Mercurio, Polytechnic University of Turin (Italy)

» Flaviana Calignano, Associate Professor, Department of Management and Production Engineering, Polytechnic University of Turin (Italy)
» Doctoral student, Department of Management and Production Engineering, Polytechnic University of Turin (Italy)


Implementing additive manufacturing technologies simplifies the traditional supply chain and reduces transportation and storage costs. Likewise, it significantly curbs the production of waste. Organizations are called upon to modify their supply chains by applying lean and agile methodologies. The lean philosophy dates back to the 1970s, when the Japanese automotive industry took an approach to process management focused on reducing waste. Agile supply chains, for their part, are capable of understanding and responding to actual market demand.

These adjustments are possible thanks to new technologies such as additive manufacturing. In the past, supply chains were designed for large-volume production and cost optimization. However, the so-called demand chains are geared towards mass customization. These refer to the segment of the value chain that fosters profitable growth by facilitating numerous engagements between customers and a business’s brands and goods.

Additive manufacturing technologies streamline the supply chain

Additive manufacturing in the industrial sector

Additive manufacturing is the process of adding materials to create objects from 3D models, typically layer by layer, as opposed to subtractive methods. Just a few years ago, additive manufacturing was considered inappropriate for various industrial sectors. However, advancements in development have allowed its use in several of them, including aerospace, medical, automotive, fashion, food, art, and jewelry. There are different techniques for carrying out 3D printing, but all follow similar steps: 3D modeling of the component, conversion to an STL file, transfer to CAM software, machine preparation, printing, removal from the platform, and, when necessary, post-processing.

The substantial impact of additive manufacturing on production processes is driven by its advantages over other traditional techniques. From an economic perspective, increasing the geometric complexity of the parts does not raise costs. 3D printing allows for the customization and modification of objects almost instantly, using only the material strictly necessary for each output. Additionally, some inputs, such as powder, can be recycled and reused. The structures achieved are lighter, which limits fuel consumption in vehicles such as aircraft. Likewise, 3D printing can enhance supply chains by enabling small businesses to set up manufacturing centers near their customers.

While mass production is shifting to developing countries, the US and European markets are focusing on short, high-value runs characterized by innovation, personalization, and sustainability. Additive manufacturing reduces the time and costs involved in creating prototypes, thereby shortening the time it takes for a product to enter the market. Moreover, customization enhances perceived value for consumers, making them more willing to pay.

Additive manufacturing meets lean objectives by eliminating inventory of semi-finished products. Meanwhile, the agile approach provides a competitive advantage by cutting costs on components previously manufactured by third parties.

The implementation of 3D printing allows for savings in short runs

In additive manufacturing, increasing the geometric complexity of parts does not raise costs

Organization and changes in the supply chain

Additive manufacturing can be centralized or decentralized. In the first case, parts are made in a central facility and then sent to various distribution centers. When decentralizing additive manufacturing, it is possible to print from each of those locations, reducing transportation costs and enabling quicker responses. Whether companies integrate additive manufacturing or implement it by subcontracting to experts in the field, employing this technology in the supply chain calls for redesigning products and processes.

Staff might lack the necessary knowledge to apply additive manufacturing techniques. Therefore, it is advisable to hire specialists or train existing personnel. In the early stages, companies should work together with 3D printer manufacturers to acquire the expertise necessary for the future. Given the sizeable initial investment required, it is recommended that businesses incorporate additive manufacturing in line with a long-term production plan.

Success stories: aircraft spare parts and sustainability

Completing repairs swiftly is essential for creating value for consumers in the aviation sector. However, for an airline, it is practically impossible to have all materials in stock: a commercial aircraft like an Airbus or Boeing plane is composed of up to four million components. Most of them are hardly ever needed, making them slow-moving parts. Thus, manufacturing them with 3D printers minimizes their logistics costs. To sum up, manufacturers can continue producing standard parts using traditional techniques while simultaneously making low-demand ones. This reduces inventory levels while leveraging the advantages of additive manufacturing.

Another sector that has benefited the most from these advancements is the aerospace industry. Optimized designs can make parts 35% to 65% more lightweight, and creating items requiring fewer components and materials streamlines the supply chain. Companies like Finland’s Salcomp, which specializes in outlets and power supplies for mobile phones, have tackled their bottlenecks. Salcomp’s plant in Chennai, India, detected that the cooling time of its injection molding process was a limiting factor. Consequently, it started manufacturing the molds employing laser powder bed fusion technology. The cooling time dropped from 14 to eight seconds, allowing the business to produce 56,000 units a month. Rejection rates also went down, from 2% to 1.4%.

Additive manufacturing allows for the elimination of steps in the assembly phase

Beyond those benefits, multiple materials used in additive manufacturing are recyclable. In the case of metal powder, it is estimated that 95% to 98% can be reused. Initiatives such as the Perpetual Plastic Project are analyzing the possibilities of employing recycled plastics as input for 3D printing. Furthermore, a mechanical process was developed to transform waste pellets into reusable filaments for extrusion-based additive manufacturing.

Impact of additive manufacturing on reshoring

Implementing additive manufacturing enables companies to eliminate steps in the assembly phase, save on short production runs, create customized products that provide added value to customers, shorten delivery times, decrease vehicle fuel consumption, and boost business flexibility. This is why numerous organizations have cited additive manufacturing as one of the reasons that led them to reshoring.

Reshoring, aka backshoring, is defined as the transfer of production back to the country of origin. It is an inverse and subsequent decision to a previous outsourcing process. Additive manufacturing removes intermediaries, lowers transportation times, and brings business activity closer to end customers. Its introduction implies the transition from a logic based on the producer to one centered on consumers. An example can be seen with the Covid-19 pandemic when the global community of low-cost polymer 3D printer users formed a response network to make personal protective equipment and medical supplies via a naturally decentralized human supply chain. Decentralized manufacturing often provides companies with a certain degree of protection against external disruptions and delays while reducing supply chain complexities.



Original publication: Calignano, Flaviana y Vincenza Mercurio. 2023. An Overview of the Impact of Additive Manufacturing on Supply Chain, Reshoring, and Sustainability. Cleaner Logistics and Supply Chain, 7 (June): 100103.

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