Let's sit back and imagine what the 3D printing supply chain of the future is going to be like. One would imagine that it's going to be different...very different. How different you ask? Well, I see this going one or two ways:
In a real extreme case customers would have their own 3D printer on premise, download blueprints from online, and be able to correctly produce what they need on the spot. Thus effectively eliminating the supply chain altogether!
In a more realistic case I see 3D manufactured products being produced locally, which translates into less of an effort needed to distribute products and that means lower transportation costs.
With 3D printing capabilities industries will undoubtedly require more regulation so organizations can ensure the quality and authenticity of products. So how will manufacturers address these challenges? Well, they will need to employ ERP software systems in different new ways.
In a world of 3D printing there will undoubtedly be more problems authenticating parts. Part serialization will become more important than it has ever been because 3D printing will allow any competitor or owner of a 3D printer to more easily reverse engineer your products. Without the proper part serialization mayhem will be created when determining the authenticity of a product for warranty purposes.
Is it possible to have this type of part serialization? Yes it is. Currently we see this type of serialization functionality in the highly regulated aerospace and defense industry.
How can this be achieved? According to Rob Stummer from Manufacturers Monthly, "This can be achieved in the ERP system so that when the blueprints are downloaded for printing there is a serial ID attached to it that corresponds to the serial ID in the ERP application."
So how can an ERP system, like Microsoft Dynamics NAV, ensure product quality?
Manufacturers using 3D printing will need process manufacturing software in their ERP application. 3D printing constitutes process manufacturing. You are taking specific alloys or materials and combining them through a process that may involve heat or other chemical reactions in order to create something new. So even if you think of yourself as a discrete manufacturer, you will become a process manufacturers as well if you engage in 3D printing (Rob Stummer, Manufacturers Monthly).
Having an ERP system with document control capabilities will be more crucial than before. You will have to ensure that the blueprints that you make available, or create, are of the correct revision and that the correct material is used in the 3D printing process. From a development point of view, this could be interesting, in that you will create a prototype item using 3D printing for a finished part that will always be 3D printed - whereas at the moment 3D printing is mainly used in the prototype phase and the finished part is manufactured traditionally (Rob Stummer, Manufacturers Monthly).
It will also be more important than ever to maintain records of the chemical components and constituents that each SKU or part is made of. And while inventory for spare parts may be reduced, and enterprise application will need sufficient forecasting functionality to determine the amount of raw materials that will be consumed over a given period, and how much usage the 3D printer will receive (Rob Stummer, Manufacturers Monthly).
The 3D printer will need to be set up as a workstation in ERP, with elements of enterprise asset management (EAM) present to ensure consistent maintenance has been performed on it. You will also need to be able to facilitate regular quality checks of parts produced so you can determine that they conform to specifications and functional requirements (Rob Stummer, Manufacturers Monthly.
The information presented above is only a few thoughts about ERP and 3D printing. As with any new technology that seems promising for manufacturers, different aspects of your business and the industry will be impacted. Issues will arise and challenges will be posed that business management systems will need to overcome.