3-D printing opens up new revenue opportunities for supply chain, helping companies meet demand in real time, manage inventory without limiting products they offer, and increase lead time.

This article is part of a series of articles written by MBA students and graduates from the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.

Spring has finally arrived in New England. However, with spring comes every vehicle’s most dreaded enemy, the pothole! My coworker Will recently fell victim to one such nemesis. His part-sourcing saga has me wondering how soon the narrative may change.

On what started as a normal morning, Will soon found himself calling a tow truck to get his car to the shop and a coworker to get himself to work. An unavoidable pothole caused one of his ball joints to fail, and limping anywhere was not an option. The silver lining of the day was that his very accommodating mechanic agreed that Will could source his own parts.

A sourcing saga ensued.

The layers of research he had to do was frustrating. Which manufacturers make the quality of product he wants? Then which distributors can provide him the quantity he needs when he needs them at the best price?

This meant calls to local auto part stores, price checking against online distributors, verifying brands & model numbers, accounting for lead times, stockouts, shipping and handling fees to determine how to get the best total value of quality, cost, and delivery.

Complex decisions like this are common in many sourcing scenarios.

But does it have to be?

What if distributors could better manage their inventory without limiting the products that they offer or increasing the lead times to their customers?

With 3-D printing, that may soon be attainable.

Rather than holding inventory from various manufacturers, a distributor could have license agreements with manufacturers to print parts on demand.

Revolutionary though this sounds, it’s not an unfamiliar model. Not so long ago, buying music meant going to a physical store to purchase or order an album. Now streaming services have license agreements with record companies to meet consumer demand in real time.

Jay Leno has been 3-D printing parts for his fleet of classic cars for nearly a decade. He admitted that initially the costs were prohibitive for most people. However now that 3-D printers are available at a wide range of price points, it is becoming more economical to print products on demand.

Printing parts with low inventory turns on demand would reduce inventory costs within the entire supply chain, having a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. High-value, low-volume parts like those of late model vehicles are the perfect candidates. In fact, BMW, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz Trucks have begun 3-D printing spare parts older models and freight trucks.

3-D printing and logistics

The next logical progression to reduce overall supply chain cost is to move production as close to the customer as possible. Logistics companies are positioning themselves to be ready to integrate into this production model.

Both UPS and DHL have recognized the potential for end-of runway 3-D print capabilities and local 3-D “print shops.” UPS has partnered with SAP and Fast Radius to launch its On-Demand 3D Printing Manufacturing Network, which leverages 3-D printing technology, analytics and UPS’s global network to execute production at the location where capacity and logistics are optimum.

This summer, BMW Motorrad will provide spare-part printing capability directly to customers with BMW Motorrad iParts, a mobile 3-D printer designed to travel with you on the back of your BMW Motorrad motorcycle. Customers will use a mobile app to download a part file from the cloud-based library and print parts on the go. Although limited by the size of the printer, Motorrad rides will be able to replace small parts in nearly any location. Customers can even preload files so, no matter where they are — the side of a mountain or the middle of a desert — they can make spare parts.

These companies are not alone in seeing the value of 3-D printing on the go. Amazon made headlines when it first filed for a patent on a 3-D printing delivery truck. That patent was granted at the beginning of this year. Although a launch plan has not been announced, a major player with that capability is a definite catalyst for more innovation at the intersection of 3-D printing and logistics.

The future

It’s clear that logistics and inventory management will not look the same 10 years from now. The question is: when and where it will be economical to print parts on demand? Click To Tweet

It’s clear that change is coming, logistics and inventory management will not look the same 10 years from now. The question is: when and where it will be economical to print parts on demand? Will it be at an end-of-runway distribution center, a local multipurpose 3-D printing shop, or on-site at repair shops? Will AAA be able to print a new ball joint in a roadside truck and change it out like it was no different than the services they offer for tires and battery today? I can’t wait to find out.

In the meantime, Will had to deal with today’s sourcing options. After many phone calls, dozens of emails, and multiple carpools to work, his car is back on the road. And he believes he got four new ball joints at a good value.

About the author

Ruth DeMott is a quality engineer at Pratt & Whitney currently pursuing an MBA at the University of New Hampshire. She holds a BS in Industrial Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (class of 2010). She has held roles of increasing responsibility in the manufacturing and quality engineering departments since joining Pratt upon completion of her undergraduate degree. She is involved in the New Hampshire Youth Rugby program, enjoys traveling, putting things together, and spending time with friends and family.

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