Additive manufacturing refers to adding successive layers of material to create an object. The concept is not new. This process was used to build the pyramids, and by anyone who has baked and added icing to make a cake.
However, 3D printing, another form of additive manufacturing, is a developing technology with as-yet unrealized potential. 3D printers can print from a computer-aided design (CAD) model or a 3D scan that makes a 3D digital copy of an object. There are a number of different technologies, processes, and materials used in 3D printing depending on the application and industry. 3D printing can be used in almost any industry that needs to create reproductions or scale-size models or even machine parts.
The biotech industry is at the forefront of 3D printing technology, using it to repair damaged tissue or create replacement body parts. Printed biological products require a complex mix of cells and non-biological materials, often including electronic nanoparticles. Some promising uses include 3D-printed livers for use in pharmaceutical testing, skin for use in burn treatments, retinal cells to repair damaged eyes, and a 3D-printed vascular system.
Distributors and 3D Printing
Closer to the wholesale distribution industry, companies are developing methods of 3D printing on-demand within mobile manufacturing hubs. In an effort to reduce warehouse space, goods can be reproduced inside a mobile hub positioned near the end customer, speeding delivery and always being in stock.
Distributors must keep an eye on this technology as it advances and consider its application to their business. For example, they should consider its applicability to service parts and repairs, especially for slow-moving inventory items, particularly in the automotive, aerospace, and marine sectors. At some point, it may become feasible and more practical to print out replacement parts rather than buying and stocking them.
3D scanning has been in use for many years in the medical field through ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography (CT), and computerized axial tomography, and it is becoming more widespread in industrial settings. Industrial applications include CAD, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries. Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) is generally used for subtractive manufacturing, in which computerized numerical control milling removes material to create a product.
Today, 3D scanning generates CAD diagrams and designs that can be used in either additive manufacturing—for example, 3D printing—or subtractive manufacturing.
Distributors and 3D Scanning
Distributors should consider 3D scanning for two primary purposes. The first is to create 3D images of parts or products for their websites. Customers can see and rotate the 3D images, which can be created quickly using a 3D scanner, before they order the part. For now, at least, this could provide differentiation from your competitors.
The second purpose is for reverse engineering. This is probably a more critical function, particularly when warehouse space is at a premium and where some parts or items move slowly but must still be kept in stock—for example, “C” or “D” items. The manufacturer can provide the digital model or a physical part could be accurately scanned. Scanning lets the distributor create an electronic inventory of parts and products (for example, if a product moves slowly because of low demand). Perhaps the producer no longer exists or the product is no longer produced. Having a digital 3D model available reduces the need to keep the part in stock just in case a customer needs it.
Distributors should see an opportunity for their business to service products for a longer period of time, even when the manufacturer has gone out of business or stops making spare parts. A word of caution: before embarking on a 3D scanning and production strategy, wholesaler-distributors must consider the legal and licensing ramifications and negotiate appropriately with the manufacturer.
In the brand-new 11th edition of Facing the Forces of Change®: Navigating the Seas of Disruption, you will find much more detail on all of these topics, including strategies and examples from leading distributors, along with suggested actions to understand and minimize the effect of disruption on a business, or present the opportunity to become a disrupter.
About the author:
While working for IBM, Paul St. Germain was responsible for managing IBM’s business and strategic initiatives within the global wholesale distribution industry. He researched critical issues and trends, developed IBM’s point of view on industry imperatives; guided IBM’s industry offerings and solutions; and engaged with wholesale distribution executives to help them transform their organizations.
This blog first appeared on IBM Consumer Products Industry Blog on November 15, 2016.
Blogs in this series:
Wholesale Distribution at a Watershed Moment – Wholesale Distribution Trends #1
Unpacking the 6 Disruptive Forces in Wholesale Distribution – Wholesale Distribution Trends #2
Branding and Image: Distributors as Service Providers – Wholesale Distribution Trends #3
Leveraging Relationships in a Customer-Centric World – Wholesale Distribution Trends #4
Using Mergers and Acquisitions as a Disruptive Force – Wholesale Distribution Trends #5
Leveraging the Changing Workforce – Wholesale Distribution Trends #6
Technology Trends—Digital Commerce – Wholesale Distribution Trends #7
Technology Trends—Analytics for the Wholesaler-Distributor – Wholesale Distribution Trends #8
Technology Trends—Cloud Computing for the Wholesaler-Distributor – Wholesale Distribution Trends #9
Technology Trends—The Internet of Things for the Wholesaler-Distributor- Wholesale Distribution Trends #10
Developing Trends in Wholesale Distribution—Robotics, Industrial Connectivity – Wholesale Distribution Trends #11
Developing Trends in Wholesale Distribution—Additive Manufacturing – Wholesale Distribution Trends #12
Developing Trends in Wholesale Distribution—Drones and Driverless Vehicles – Wholesale Distribution Trends #13
Developing Trends in Wholesale Distribution—Virtual Reality and Blockchain – Wholesale Distribution Trends #14
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