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Could 3D Printing Really Transform Global Manufacturing Supply Chains?

Posted By Paul Tate, January 27, 2015 at 6:03 AM, in Category:

One of the holy grails often cited by advocates of 3D printing technologies, or additive manufacturing (AM) as they are also known, is the potential for manufacturing companies to radically transform their traditional supply chains by creating a pool of digital designs that can then be easily downloaded via the cloud and final products 3D-printed locally in different locations around the world, close to the point of need.

Instead of the expense and logistics complexity of shipping parts or finished products to multiple, often distant markets, the physical supply chain will then be structured around the availability of local 3D printer capacity and the bulk delivery of the necessary raw production materials required – whether that’s polymers, ceramics or metal-based powders.

The reality of this approach may still be some time away for major corporations, but one ambitious new start-up is now hoping to turn this transformational idea into practice – albeit on a small scale initially.

Launched on the Kickstarter crowdfunding web site this week, an aspiring U.K.-based start-up called CloudPrint hopes to create its first, pilot, ‘open source’ 3D printing factory in a fast-growing market in the developing world that will locally create products – from medical supplies to construction products - to help small and medium-sized enterprises, wherever they may be based, to penetrate new foreign markets without the need to build their own manufacturing plants or create expensive logistics chains.

This approach, argues the company’s young founder Michael Stephen Crickmore, means that companies can “focus on their products and bottom line without worrying about high spending on foreign market expansion”.

With a business model that involves a specially-designed web portal and then leasing both the local factory space and advanced industrial 3D printing technology required, it certainly has ambitious goals -- nothing less than ”Redefining the manufacturing industry through 3D printing”.

That may be reaching for the stars, especially since its crowdsourcing pitch is only looking for a modest $76,000 in initial funding, but the business concept behind the initiative is interesting.

Whether CloudPrint reaches its funding goal or not, do you think the combination of 3D printing and cloud-based digital designs could eventually lead to such disintermediation of traditional manufacturing supply chains?

Are the risks of local quality control, intellectual property protection, physical asset security in remote foreign locations, or dependable skills availability in developing markets just too high to make such approaches viable?

Or is this an early example of how, as new online and production technologies develop, larger corporations may start to think about harnessing the latest manufacturing innovations to radically rethink their logistics and supply chain strategies? 

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive


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