The transformative impact of technology on procurement: 3D printing

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Fringe Applications

Whilst 3D printing has been prominent in the headlines for some time, it has yet to have a major impact on enterprise level businesses apart from in a few niche areas. However, it’s possible to see from these fringe applications the potential to transform costs in key areas of the supply chain.

From a low starting point, the performance of 3D-printed products has risen dramatically. In July, NASA used the technology to produce a new rocket engine, which matched the performance of traditionally manufactured parts at temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees. The same agency has also announced plans to use 3D printers in space, where shipping in a replacement part is not a cost-effective option.

Lean Manufacturing

An intractable problem for businesses has always been the need to combine minimal stockholding with lean, efficient manufacturing. A worn or broken part must be replaced immediately to minimise costly downtime, but holding unusual and expensive parts in stock can tie up substantial working capital, as well as requiring storage at a manufacturing site where space is always a premium.

However, it is difficult for lean-focussed engineering teams to be convinced of the validity of such a major transformational change, especially if it comes with an initial cost in capital expenditure. It will, as ever, be the job of procurement to make these cost-benefit calculations, acting as an impartial auditor of every factor in the input costs of either solution.

The Role of Procurement in Decision-Making

Will the time to print a part lead to unacceptable increases in production downtime? How often are parts replaced as scheduled maintenance rather than a repair basis? Can existing and 3D printed parts be recycled, and how much of their initial cost can be recovered through this process? All these issues will need to be understood and addressed. However, as technology advances, the scales will begin to shift.

Whilst commonly used parts may still be cheaper to mass produce in low-cost countries, it’s clear that there will come a tipping point at which the set-up costs for 3D printing outweigh the significant costs of holding stock of more specialised (and more intricate) items. This has the potential to transform the sourcing strategies for spares in manufacturing and maintenance businesses. Procurement will need to place itself at the forefront of this innovation.

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