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3D Printing: Downstream Production Transforming the Supply Chain


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This Perspective explores the potential for 3D printing capabilities to transform supply chains by enabling downstream production. 3D printing, as we define it in this research, is the capability to produce a custom object in nearreal time with the ease of pressing a button. In doing so, we depart from the prevalent engineering and hobby literatures focus on 3D printing as solely consisting of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies. AM creates physical objects by depositing thin layers of material (e.g., metal alloys, various plastics and polymers) on top of each other based on a digital description of the products design. Traditional and established subtractive manufacturing (SM) creates objects by removing material (e.g., through drilling or lathing) from solid stock, often with computer control. Our capability based definition of 3D printing permits us to discuss supply chain process flow and end results through a technology-agnostic lens, instead of focusing on specific engineering processes. As will be discussed throughout this Perspective, 3D printing is more than just AM and SM. A reevaluation of 3D printing capabilities for organizations that manage large, diverse supply chains is justified now because of the rapid progress of AM technology. Commercial industries are applying AM in a wide range of fieldsfrom toy manufacturing to tooling and prototyping, with new applications being developed at an increasing pace. Interest in AM is also growing within the U.S. government. At the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) National Laboratories, research programs are using AM technologies to create new materials with properties unavailable in nature, such as lightweight frames and antennas that can also function as structures. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) also sees potential in applying AM to support maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) by providing drop-in replacements for worn-out, costly, or difficult-to-obtain parts.



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