Empty warehouse

3D printing is closing the door on physical warehouses

Image credit: Dreamstime

3D printing is set to make space-hungry centralised storage centres a thing of the past for many products, and eliminate the need for expensive distribution systems.

In the not too distant future, manufacturing may no longer be associated with warehouses filled with stacks of finished products waiting for shipment. Instead, on-demand 3D printing which requires little storage space will allow manufacturers to generate parts to order and reduce overheads by moving production closer to the intended market, shortening the length of the supply chain.

The technology is also well suited for low-volume and customised products, particularly replacement parts. Shifting this sort of work from factory floors to 3D printers would free up manufacturers to focus their time, energy and talents on other goods. What part does a digital warehouse play in this transition, where do you begin creating one, and how can industry help to pave the way?

In a conventional supply chain, spare parts are mass-produced to minimise costs and reduce lead time, yet are manufactured to serve unpredictable after-market demand that may or may not exist. Stock is either stored in a central distribution site to lessen the overall cost of inventory and allow for greater control over and visibility of stock levels - which has the consequence of longer lead and delivery times - or is housed in regional warehouses to ensure quick delivery to the end destination, but at higher costs.

With 3D on-demand print, companies can design their products centrally and have them manufactured locally, mitigating the risk and cost of stockouts and over-stocking. Ultimately, businesses can create what they want, when they want it. The use of a toolpath means these items, which are stored as ‘digital inventory’, can be manufactured at any time as long as there is access to a printer.

In digital inventory solutions, the warehouse itself is shelved in favour of an on-demand production facility located near the source of need. Digital files sent securely from the manufacturer ensure OEM-accurate designs, irrespective of their global origin. 3D printing and post-processing these files on-site on a reliable system with proven repeatability in quality mitigates the need for global shipping. The implications in terms of logistics are significant, reducing the time a customer waits for a part while also cutting down the carbon footprint of freight.

So far, only a few companies have fully embedded 3D printing as a solution to reduce their need for physical warehouses. Identifying which parts are 3D-printable is the first stage of the process. Carefully evaluate the bill of materials and determine which parts can be replaced from injection moulding to 3D printing. For very little cost, 3D-printed parts can be made on-demand with physical qualities that approach those of injection-moulding.

Industries that can benefit immediately are those with low-volume products, such as companies that create complex machines which have a large number of slow-moving, often very specific parts. Only a few are needed, and they can sit for a long time in the warehouse until ordered. When it comes to slow-moving parts, 3D printing offers guaranteed product availability through on-demand manufacture.

Research by MIT suggests that by adopting 3D printing companies can reduce spare parts inventory by 90 per cent, yet still ensure 100 per cent availability. Considering that slow-moving parts make up approximately 80 per cent of all spares for the automotive sector, deployment would mean complete disruption within this industry.

By essentially replacing the just-in-time inventory, virtual warehouses can send 3D model files to the closest 3D printer. Suppliers wouldn’t have to hold supplies of spares in storage to meet their contractual obligations as they can be printed on request. And not even on their own premises, but near the customer that needs it.

On-demand production also facilitates the opportunity for greater levels of personalisation for finished or almost-finished goods. Other items that require custom designs can be individualised with little to no lead-time.

IKEA Israel’s ThisAbles project is a great example of personalisation using digital warehousing. Through smart hacks, which are additions that bridge some of the gaps between existing IKEA products, ThisAbles make IKEA’s bestselling products accessible to those with disabilities - and they maximise accessibility at every stage of the project. Models are available to download from the project's website for 3D printing anywhere in the world.

Although industry has a long way to go before warehouses are no longer needed for this sort of moving part, local manufacturing through 3D printing is a move that companies need to begin to make before their competitors do.

The possibilities are endless: beginning with spare and slow-moving parts is the best way to start the process. The 3D-printing industry is currently at full speed in paving the way to realise these digital warehouses. There is software out there that can help to identify whether an existing part can be 3D-printed, while fused-filament fabrication (FFF) offers a reliable manufacturing technique that requires little to no post processing and allows people to start printing immediately.

Besides the software and the hardware, materials are also key in rapidly speeding up production. In this sense, the materials and 3D-printing industry are currently joining forces to deliver full material freedom, so you can use what you need for your specific requirements.

Rethinking and redesigning your current parts for 3D printing to transform the physical warehouse to a digital one is an exciting process which, as well as fuelling innovation and progress through custom design and personalisation, ultimately has the potential to transform the entire supply chain.

Paul Heiden is SVP product management with Ultimaker, a supplier of 3D printing equipment, software and materials.

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