The production of parts using additive manufacturing (AM) offers the possibility of a ‘zero-mile’ supply chain, with significant potential benefits for manufacturing operations.

Manufacturers must often respond fast regarding the repair and turnaround of faulty equipment, minimising production disruption and downtime. Using 3D printing, parts can be produced rapidly in common materials such as steel, titanium, aluminium, or more exotic materials. Moreover, new materials designed specifically for AM offer improved performance. Given the large inventories found within typical manufacturing operations, a major question is: which parts are technically and commercially viable for AM?

A recent audit for a US operation included a total inventory of 4,500 individual parts. Of these, some 450 were identified as technically feasible for printing, and 200 offered significant commercial benefits to the company compared with historic sourcing.

Given the speed of production possible using AM in prototyping and serial production, manufacturers may consider investing in their own in-house 3D printing operation. The advantages include a ‘zero-mile’ parts supply chain, avoidance of high inventory levels, better process control, and risk mitigation against costly downtime. The alternative option is to source from a supplier offering printing services, with their specific lead times and supply chain risks. However, given the focus on productivity among mainstream manufacturing operations , it may be hard to justify the investment of time, technology and resources associated with an in-house AM facility.

A more viable, proven option offers the ‘best of both worlds’, with quality parts are manufactured rapidly on-demand, with a zero-mile supply chain. This results in low operational risk, supporting onsite manufacturing or maintenance operations, but without the need for high capital investment or increased fixed manufacturing costs.

In this scenario, an end-to-end provider of AM services, working under a parts supply contract, establishes a production facility, requiring minimal physical space, on or near the customer’s premises. A dedicated, secure digital parts library is established following a full audit of the client’s inventory. Relevant printing technology is established onsite and print parameters developed for the materials concerned.

The supplier manages the AM production and internal parts order system on the customer’s behalf, delivering virtual on-demand parts production with a zero-mile supply chain. Operational risk is mitigated against the lack of availability of components, and inventories can be managed at lower cost. 3D Metalforge has developed this model at the Port of Singapore, undertaking a full audit of AM-suitable parts, digitalising them into a dedicated parts library ready for production, and manufacturing them on demand for the Port using a Hybrid Wire Arc printer.