I’ve seen the 3D-printed future. It needs a new supply chain
The future landed in my living room around May 12. We had bought our son a 3D printer for his birthday. I had been thinking about buying a 3D printer for some time, but hadn’t gotten around to researching brands, models and capabilities. As a hands-on engineer, chainsaw rebuilder, home renovator and general gearhead, the idea of concocting a design, sketching up a drawing, and building it comes to me naturally. But 3D printing is different.
While visiting a childhood friend on Vancouver Island, I noticed there was a 3D printer in his office. “Is that a 3D printer?”, I asked. “Yes, and it’s the best one out there for the money”, he answered. Translation: my trusted friend had already done the research legwork. Excellent! The next week I ordered the same model from Amazon for $300. The printer comes as a kit, and one afternoon my son and I spent 6 hours putting it together on the dining room table. Sure, we could have bought a complete version, but I felt it would be good for my son to understand the device as he follows in the footsteps of his parents, studying mechanical engineering.
Once we had the printer built, we couldn’t wait to test it. After turning it on and warming it up, we connect the printer to the PC via USB. From the CAD software we export a drawing to a slicer program. The slicer takes the design and slices it into hundreds of horizontal layers, creating the flow path for the print head. The slicer program then uploads the .gcode file to the printer, and it’s ready to start printing. Layer by layer, the melted plastic filament is laid out and the design materializes.
From Left to Right: 3D Printer purchased on Amazon; Some early prints; 3D printed trash bin for the car; Centrifugal fan blade.
As our very first design began taking shape on the printer’s platform, I sat there and pondered the implications. Being an engineer-turned-enterprise software professional, I was always conscious of the intersection of the physical, human and digital planes. 3D printing will alter our working world, no doubt about it. Not only work, but supply chains as well. It wasn’t long ago that someone said, “companies don’t compete, supply chains do.” With 3D printing, it’s time to change that mantra again.
“Supply chains compete, and so do ideas”.
Enterprises can always come up with a great design, but that great design is compromised in the marketplace if the supply chain isn’t there to support it. Suppliers, production, transport, warehousing, distribution and retail channels are part of the competitive arsenal, and they all need to be in sync.
With this printer sitting in my living room (and presumably millions of living rooms), the supply chain changes. In my unique case, I only need one – correction – two, supply chains. One supply chain for plastic filament, and another for ideas (or designs).
Ideas are not subject to the same constraints as physical supply chains. Ideas move instantly, and there are factors that influence the harvesting, production, refinement, distribution and performance of ideas.
For an enterprise, an idea may take shape in a design thinking session, or in a customer focus group. It may result from a warranty claim or service ticket, from a manufacturing defect, or from a need to reduce costs. There are limitless sources for ideas.
Now more than ever, enterprises need to put significant energy into driving good, practical ideas from their ‘idea supply chain’. Enterprises will need to gather data from millions of people (or their IOT-enabled printers) to gauge feedback on designs and respond rapidly. Social media helps people quickly praise or be critical of poor products to a wide audience, but currently that product is at the end of a very long supply and design chain. If the future enterprise is one that sells customers a 3D printer file with a single-use digital right, it’s the ideas and designs that will be critiqued. Competitors will launch competing ideas to try to gain market share. No need to wait for the competing product to hit the shelf.
Without the need for a manufacturing and distribution network, next-generation idea enterprises need to ramp idea management capabilities to compete. In the 3D-printed future, the company that provides its customers with the timeliest idea will be the one that wins.
Earlier I said I was no stranger to designing and building, and that this 3D printing realm was different. Here’s my opinion on what’s on the horizon:
First – the machine builds it. No getting your hands dirty! Upload the file, push the button and go. As a hands-on builder, it’s cool to let the machine do the work.
Second – instant gratification with value chain disruption. I dream it, or I need it, and I make it. For example, I need a new light switch cover in the hallway. I’m going to ask my son to measure it up and print a replacement. Now an OEM with a supply chain that sources plastic, has molds and injection molding machines, employees, warehouses, trucks, and retailer relationships is going to feel that decision. I wouldn’t mind paying that OEM for a single-use digital file holding a tested and proven design.
Third – instant digital feedback and affinity. After I print the light switch cover, the 3D printer sends a signal back to the OEM that the print job is complete. Allowing an hour delay after the conclusion of the print, a text message from the OEM prompts me for my feedback on the design – am I satisfied? Enter a score – 1 bad to 5 good – and hit reply. Feedback will be tracked in real time and displayed on the OEM website for other potential customers to see. I may allow myself to be contacted via an anonymous email alias to provide a reference to a prospective customer. For my trouble, I will get 10% off my next design purchase. As a repeat customer, I might be invited to a virtual design review or to be a beta-tester.
Fourth – new business processes with mandatory digital transformation. In the traditional supply chain, processes such as procurement, manufacturing, quality, testing, packaging, warehousing, distribution will be impacted by 3D printing. Other business processes will be enhanced or newly created – particularly around design acceleration, customer quality and feedback, customer design collaboration, royalty management, digital rights and more. These will be digital-only processes.
Fifth – enterprise valuations continue to evolve. More emphasis will be put on a company’s investment in R&D and enabling technology as a leading indicator of market opportunity. Traditional logistical value-add streams of buy-make-move-store will have less impact. This already happened over the last few decades with the outsourcing of manufacturing. 3D printing is poised to bring the next evolution in the enterprise valuation model.
While I am seeing the future from my living room, I’m certain enterprises are seeing it from their boardrooms as well. Physical supply chains will continue to exist, but digital idea-based supply chains are about to rise. I am curious to see how enterprises, particularly OEMs, respond to the 3D printing phenomenon.