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3D printing presents opportunities, threats in the aftermarket supply chain

Monday, December 30, 2013 - 08:00
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Parts availability, especially for low-demand SKUs and items for older vehicles, continues to be a problem even in the best-run supply chains. But what if you could just produce those parts on demand when customers wanted them in batches of one or two? That's what could be possible in the aftermarket thanks to 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies.

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3D printers and other types of additive manufacturing devices lay down thin layers of material (usually plastic or metal) using data from CAD and other types of digital files. As the layers are built up, they create a three-dimensional object.

According to research from Markets and Markets, the 3D printing market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23 percent from 2013 to 2020, reaching $8.41 billion. According to Gartner, worldwide shipments of sub-$100,000 3D printers will grow 49 percent in 2013, and grow to 75 percent in 2014. There is a lot of buzz around the technology, especially since falling prices have made it possible for small manufacturers to produce everything from toys to jewelry to homemade firearms using the printers.

3D printing was also on the agenda at the recent Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA) Technology Council (ATC) fall conference in October, where additive manufacturing was the subject of a keynote address by 3D Systems vice president Greg Elfering.

The notion that parts could be produced on demand, anywhere, could potentially eliminate a lot of supply chain bottlenecks. But the industry has mixed feelings about it. "At the conference, I asked the participants in our discussion groups, who were primarily manufacturers, if they felt additive manufacturing was more of an opportunity or a threat," says Chris Gardner, vice president of programs and member services at AASA. "Overwhelmingly, more of them thought it was a threat than an opportunity, as they understand it today."

Moving the point of manufacture

The automotive industry has used 3D printing technology for years, primarily to create prototype parts and models. With costs dropping and material improving, though, it's now possible to build production parts this way. With the arrival of desktop 3D printers aimed at consumers and businesses, every distributor, repairer and vehicle owner could conceivably have the same capabilities at their fingertips.

"3D printing is not cheap, and it's not for high-volume parts, but for low-volume runs it can be an affordable option," says Warren Smith, global industry director at software provider Infor.

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