How Is Rapid Prototyping Changing The Supply Chain?

The supply chain is one of the areas most affected by developments in 3D printing

23Apr

Without question, additive manufacturing and 3D printing are some of the most exciting new technologies to arise in recent years. But as rife with potential as the household and hobbyist applications are already, the greatest potential for this type of manufacturing actually lies behind the scenes in the supply chain.

Rapid prototyping could remake the manufacturing and product handling processes as we know them and help us bring about better-designed products, more quickly than ever, all at the same time.

Of course, rapid prototyping isn’t limited to 3D printing. As we’ll see in a moment, another advantage of rapid prototyping is that it can be done using a variety of materials to suit manufacturers, their workflows and their ultimate ambitions for the workpiece.

Shortening the Product Design Pipeline

We mentioned above 3D printing was a 'new' technology, but that’s not, strictly speaking, true. Many types of additive manufacturing have been around for decades, but they only became cost-effective to deploy in recent years. Consequently, we’re only beginning to appreciate the advantages rapid prototyping through additive manufacturing — as well as die-casting and others — has to offer the world of product design.

The proximate advantage here comes from moving prototyping in-house versus outsourcing to somebody else. To put it another way, the pipeline between design and an actual physical product that you can handle yourself — and test for desirability, durability, and utility — is getting shorter and shorter. It’s a huge time-saver all around, plus it lets product designers test many product variations in quick succession or even at the same time.

Of particular interest here is any product family that deals with human health or anything else of a time-sensitive nature. We’re already seeing encouraging results in the healthcare world where, for instance, rapid prototyping has shortened the time required to connect patients with potentially life-saving medical instruments and devices.

Because of these far-reaching implications and applications, we should also note rapid prototyping can be done with a variety of materials. Depending on the geometry involved and the casting method you choose, rapid prototyping yields parts in as little as five weeks. We’ve focused quite a bit on 3D printing, but there are several other options as well, any of which could help you explore new materials and build techniques and then try out prototypes in real-world conditions. Examples include die-casting, plaster mold prototyping, gravity casting, CNC machining from castings or sheet material and sometimes a combination of several of these, if the product is complex enough.

Developing Smarter Packaging for Transport and Shelf Appeal

It’s easy to forget rapid prototyping can just as easily be leveraged to develop packaging as the product that will end up inside it. Polycarbonate, ABS, PLA, and other thermoplastics are all common ingredients in modern product packaging and all can be rapidly prototyped to develop exciting, functional and practical packaging well before the product itself is slated to ship out.

As a matter of fact, this advantage of rapid prototyping is something that stretches from one end of the supply chain to the other. Consider the advantages of producing several packaging variants quickly so you can run them by your partners. How well will your packaging stack in the back of a truck? Or in shipping cartons? Is the design intended for end consumers, or will retailers break the packaging down before displaying the product?

Rapid prototyping greatly improves response time when it comes to details like these, and it can help make sure some mundane concern you forgot to iron out doesn’t snarl up the supply chain. That means less business risk and less chance of unnecessary rework for your employees.

Reducing Physical Inventory and Developing Custom Products

Supply and demand can be fickle. And yet, every step of the supply chain is at its mercy to some extent or another. The traditional manufacturing process — where an abundance of a product gets made and then sits around waiting for demand to catch up — isn’t long for this world, all thanks to rapid prototyping.

As rapid prototyping via die-casting and 3D printing becomes both more economically feasible and more physically capable for a wider variety of manufacturers to deploy, we are very likely to see vastly smaller warehouse spaces and product staging areas in the future. The idea of a 'virtual inventory' is catching on quickly in manufacturing and shipping. The inventory of the future will not be shipping hubs full of unsold merchandise, but rather a library of CAD files stored on a computer.

It sounds far-fetched, but it isn’t. And there’s another benefit here, too — and, again, it’s one several players in the supply chain will probably jump at. As long as we’re getting comfortable with supplying salable products on-demand, we can get comfortable with offering much more highly customizable products, too. The recently announced partnership between UPS and Fast Radius will see the partners collaborate on printing and shipping customization, as well as short-run products with lightning-fast turnaround times.

Rapid prototyping in the supply chain means rapid prototyping everywhere in manufacturing. It means, potentially, a far wider range of clients. Imagine being able to offer bespoke alterations to your products, which would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. But now, our product lines — in a wide variety of industries — will become more exciting and dynamic than ever before. The implications of this type of customizability and collaboration could be huge.

But not, probably, as huge as the splash rapid prototyping is making in general. These have been just a few of the ways the manufacturing world is becoming far more agile, flexible, and consumer-friendly than it’s ever been. It doesn’t just mean better products for end users, either. It also means greater profitability for shareholders. And you know what? We’re just getting started.

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