With new frontiers constantly being pushed, few would deny that the opportunities presented by 3D printing/additive manufacturing are aplenty.

These include possibilities around virtual inventories and even on-demand manufacturing – advantages that can deliver cost savings, increased responsiveness, and flexibility to customers. And without the need for huge investments.

After all, the weak spot in any supply chain is the physical inventory; it has no benefits and is a burden for companies that pay enormous amounts of money to maintain it.

It seems a no brainer to adopt these digital models, but they carry risks that are untenable if they are not eliminated. For example, how do the big brands seize such opportunities while protecting their intellectual property (IP), maintaining consistency and quality – and ultimately upholding brand integrity?

The opportunity

Certainly, within the industrial manufacturing world, if you consider some of the issues around spare parts, then it’s easy to see how a virtual inventory model enabled by additive manufacturing offers many benefits to brands and their customers.

We’re working with one major equipment manufacturer who has almost four million spare parts – clearly way too many to maintain a physical inventory. Here, the ability to quickly 3D print an ‘emergency’ spare part and get it to the customer so they’re back up and running presents an immediate win-win.

The manufacturer can solve the customer’s problem (and charge a premium price for doing so) and the customer receives a part in a few days, as opposed to a few weeks, resulting in minimal impact on the production throughput.

Another example is general spare parts for the automotive sector. Once these can be produced using additive manufacturing, then clearly the ability for the major brands to produce on-demand from a virtual inventory eliminates many of the costs associated with storage and transport costs.

The risks of complacency

However, simply moving to virtual inventory and a wider digital supply chain opens some serious pitfalls, so there is a stronger need to protect the brand’s digital assets. Think about it – sending an STL file instantly creates issues around the security of the file itself and IP protection.

Basically, if your IP isn’t protected then the file can be intercepted and the part vulnerable to change or leakage. This is a direct threat to the brand’s reputation.

Another pitfall is the threat to part consistency and quality. This could potentially lead to the part being produced in a sub-standard or incompatible way (e.g. cheaper material or inferior 3D printing technology) than it should be to perform to expectations. Just like traditional manufacturing, additive is susceptible to production inconsistencies that can occur unintentionally because of human error.

Although one would expect that most brands already have one eye on ensuring consistency in manufacturing, the reality is that it is relatively easy for consistency to be hurt or compromised, even by mistake.

The wrong material could inadvertently get loaded onto a 3D printer, or the settings on that printer accidentally mis-set. If such an eventuality does arise, then it could potentially be a company’s reputation ruined or their brand threatened – something no business in the world would welcome.

The numbers matter…

As well as the need to ensure the right part is printed in the right way, there is the issue of quantity. Once a company moves to a digital or virtual inventory, they need to ensure that the digital files/assets can’t simply be printed multiple times without limits or even just tracking and reporting. Imagine an aerospace company that has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in developing a crucial final part for an aircraft.

What would happen if it was accessed then printed, not only in the wrong material, but also in large numbers? It would be catastrophic. I find it incredible that, even with major global brands employing sophisticated processes, if an employee wants to print an extra item, then nobody will ever know. This is even worse if it is an outside supplier’s employee.

These are critical issues that large companies worry about, including their top management level, all the time. At the end of the day, regardless of whether such scenarios arise by accident or not, brands cannot afford to produce defective parts that will ultimately fail. Even if those parts are being produced via an intermediary, it’s ultimately the brand itself that is at risk. Certainly, no company that we are talking or working with is willing to take that kind of risk.

Which finally brings me to the good news for companies seeking to use additive manufacturing for end parts and to enjoy the benefits of on-demand manufacturing or virtual inventories. There are forward-thinking Software as a Service (SaaS) solution providers out there who have developed automatic and seamless mechanisms to address the problems I’ve outlined.

LEO Lane for distributed manufacturing
LEO Lane is a cloud-based SaaS for IP protection.

The even better news is that the issues mentioned above can be avoided with minimal disruption, without presenting a headache for supply chain managers, the procurement process, and even the IT organization. No installations, no change in procurement policies, no muss, no fuss.

This is crucial, because most procurement managers will likely tell you that they don’t particularly care if a part is produced via additive manufacturing or injection molding; to them it’s irrelevant. They just want to be able to order it on their ERP system like any other part.

As a provider of such a SaaS solution, in our experience, ensuring that there is zero change from a procurement or policies perspective is paramount for adoption. If we were to approach global manufacturers and inform them that this – along with processes from design, manufacturing and sales – would need to change, they wouldn’t listen. And rightfully so.

Right now, I think there are many brands that are using additive manufacturing to centrally produce small quantities of parts that are then shipped to where they need to be. What some are not yet doing is scaling additive manufacturing in the true sense, because ultimately, when they do so their existing model becomes untenable, as we would expect.

To scale quantities with additive manufacturing raises the very issues I’ve outlined above, but that shouldn’t stop companies from enjoying key benefits like cost-savings, increased responsiveness, and flexibility to customers. These benefits are achievable while protecting the company’s manufacturing know-how and designs – and ultimately its brand image and reputation.

For such companies seeking to deploy trouble-free additive manufacturing anywhere and at any time, a bit of research into such SaaS solutions is time well spent. It can also help the person doing the research to shine in the next presentation to top management, addressing their concerns in an insightful way.