“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” – this famous line from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation highlights the future of supply and demand. However, with the rapid development of new technologies, could this fictitious perspective on life in the 24th century become a reality sooner than expected?
The device known as a “replicator”, featured in the sci-fi TV hit, was capable of instantly making Captain Picard’s favorite beverage (including cup) out of nothing but pure energy. Whilst such a machine is still light-years from becoming a typical household item, rapidly developing technologies are driving unimaginable futuristic paradigms in today’s supply chain.
The technology in question is 3D printing and unlike anything seen in Star Trek, this concept is very real. The technology uses 3D digital modeling to accurately spray fine layers of basic powdery materials such as metals, plastic or ceramic until the final product is complete. This production process was originally designed and used for prototyping but is now forging itself as the one of the most promising technologies of our time.
According to a recent white paper from Transport Intelligence, entitled “The Implications of 3D-Printing for the Global Logistics Industry”, up to 30 percent of finished products already involve some kind of 3D printing. By 2020, this figure is expected to rise to 80 percent. Furthermore, given that rate prices for 3D printing equipment are falling, it will not be long until the technology hits the consumer market. Some experts predict 3D-printing will shape the future in a way that only the Internet has managed to achieve.
This technology is expected to open up whole new frontiers in production and the resulting impact on the supply chain could be huge. Complex processes involving lengthy bills of materials, mass storage of finished products and long distance transportation could become a thing of the past. 3D printers could redefine the supply chain with make-to-order as the dominant production method. In some extreme cases, the technology could erode away huge chunks of the supply chain as products are manufactured locally onsite.
There are already some indications that the Star Trek era is almost upon us. For example, engineers from the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company developed the first working bicycle using steel-strength nylon and 3D printing technologies. Further examples of the technology can be seen in the building industry where architects have adopted 3D printing to create entirely new construction methods. The technology has even been used in the food industry to create a meat-free alternative for tech-loving vegetarians.
However, until the technology achieves production standards that match that of the “replicator,” the supply chain will not become unrecognizable just yet. After all, using pure energy as a sole raw material to manufacture complex products is still a working progress and at present way beyond the realms of technology. So whilst complete erosion of the supply chain is not an immediate issue, this new technology will still force businesses to rethink how they approach supply chain management.
As the adoption of 3D printing technology grows, businesses could witness an unprecedented change in how supply and demand operate. Potentially 3D printers could push the boundaries of the 21st century business models as production becomes localized and operations reach new levels of flexibility, enabling businesses to better satisfy the customer.
Some industries may move forward in quantum leaps: fully embracing new technologies to completely reshape the industry. For example, in the spare-parts industry, wholesalers could use 3D printing to manufacture an assortment of their own supplies. Businesses would face new challenges with regard to how they deal with suppliers and fluctuations in demand.
Organizations must prepare themselves by improving supply chain visibility. Through implementing effective forecasting and planning support tools businesses can better manage the supply chain to ensure they can respond more readily to the challenges new technology brings.
At present, the full potential if 3D printing remains unknown. However, one thing is certain: 3D-printing will have a major effect on how future enterprises operate. Businesses that actively seek out ways to adapt the supply chain will be better prepared to cope with futuristic challenges and take full advantage of the benefits that may result.