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Impact of 3-D Printing Technology in Manufacturing Supply Lines to Improve Resilience During Black Swan Events

Established complex, dynamic and customized supply chains in some of the toughest and challenging situations in the Himalayas.

The adoption of 3-D printing infrastructure in manufacturing supply chain infrastructure leads to the simplification of the networks. It facilitates simplification through economies of scale, customization, co-production, better demand prediction, freedom in shape design, allowance for manufacturing postponement, fewer nodes and integration of functionalities to reduce steps in the chain. These contribute to improved resilience through a variety of mechanisms. 3-D printing in the manufacturing sector will simplify complex and globalized networks thereby making them more resilient to black swan events. The findings of this review article are important for managers and chief supply chain officers in that they can better simplify the chains through the adoption of 3-D printing infrastructure, thereby insulating their businesses from the cascading effects of black swan events.



An efficient supply chain facilitates the allotment of goods at a desired place and time in the required quality and quantity. With reduced margins due to high labour costs, increased competition and efficiency improvements in transport and reduced trade barriers, companies in the manufacturing sector have developed complex networks of supply lines and have shifted to using manufacturing bases in countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina and China. This allows the development of lean and just-in-time logistic operations, thereby providing competitive leverage in the hyper-competitive business landscape (Norihiko and Lee 2003; Goyal 2013; Gereffi 2011). Traditional risks impacting the complex globalized supply chains arise from issues of distorted demand information and breakdowns in production, logistics and transportation, which can be recurrent and routine (Ghadge et al. 2019; A. R. Singh et al. 2012). Research suggests that almost 75% of all organizations each year experience supply chain disruptions (Breunig and Jones 2011; Scholten, Sharkey Scott, and Fynes 2019).

‘Black swan’ events pose substantially greater problems. These are huge magnitude events which are pervasive, unpredictable and that necessitate re-shaped economic structures. Examples include the shortage of automobile parts that disrupted production lines for several months in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, the floods in Thailand in 2011 that affected the supply chains of computer manufacturers due to a shortage of hard disks, or the 2010 eruption of a volcano in Iceland that disrupted air transportation and impacted time-sensitive air shipments (Aggarwal and Bohinc 2012; Sheffi and Rice 2005; Zsidisin and Wagner 2010). Black swan events may be thought of as ‘unknown unknowns’ impacting supply chains in ways not accounted for in existing business models, including shortages of parts, the need for changes to product design, manufacturing stoppages and other logistical breakdowns (Mukai, Fujimoto, and Park 2019).

Further research is needed to specify the relationship between simplification of chains due to 3-D technology adoption in the manufacturing sector. The purpose of this literature review is to examine whether 3-D printing in the manufacturing sector will simplify complex and globalized networks thereby making them more resilient to black swan events. The findings of this review article are important for managers and chief supply chain officers in that they can better understand supply chain risk management to protect their businesses. This review highlights how they can approach risk identification, assessment, mitigation and monitoring by leveraging the advantages of 3-D printing (Colicchia, Creazza, and Menachof 2019)

3-D Printing Process

Three-dimensional (3-D) printing is a technology used for fabricating complex standalone parts or assemblies (for use in the manufacturing process) in a printer from their digital design through AM, wherein a single or multiple materials are used to print layer over layer with the shape of each layer to be adjusted to form the intended component (Ghilan et al. 2020; Jun et al. 2017). The process of AM is shown in Figure 1, wherein the metallic powder is melted with a high heat laser or an electric-arc and this molten metal is then deposited in layers as directed by the controller to form the shape of the part (Hong et al. 2018). This technology has led to reduced product development times and faster-time-to-market compared to traditional manufacturing (Hlavin 2014). It allows for building complex components, provides freedom from design constraints and offers capabilities for a single integrated assembly line for different parts (Durach, Kurpjuweit, and Wagner 2017; Akmal et al. 2018; Hong et al. 2018; Medellin-Castillo and Zaragoza-Siqueiros 2019a).


The complete 3-D infrastructure requires setting up a design centre or integration with a design institute through cloud services that would enable the consumer to participate in the selection or the design phase. Subsequently, as shown in Figure 2, a 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) followed by a software file is created which is then sliced in a software application to decide on the granularity of the layers of deposition of the 3-D material. Finally, the design is produced in a 3-D printer and is thereafter sent to a conventional post-processing machine (Medellin-Castillo and Zaragoza-Siqueiros 2019b). Moreover, a system of manufacturing as a service for 3-D printing provides a platform for free design which is helpful in co-customizing and making it possible to have many smaller production sites close to customers thereby simplifying chains (Ben-Ner and Siemsen 2017; Gholamipour-Shirazi et al. 2020; Guo and Qiu 2018).

4. 3-D Infrastructure in Manufacturing Supply Chain: A Force Multiplier

The global 3-D market will grow to $35.6 billion by 2024, with a healthy adoption outlook for 3-D printing in the manufacturing sector (“The Wohlers Report 2019” 2019). The metal used in the field increased by 42% in 2018, a fifth straight year of increase, implying growing use of 3-D printing in the manufacturing sector (Jayaram et al. 2020). In a survey carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), of more than 100 manufacturing companies in 2014, 11% had already switched to volume production of 3-D-printed parts or products, with the sale of industrial-grade printers at one-third the volume of sales (D’Aveni 2015). These numbers reflect the inclination of the manufacturing industry to leverage the advantages of 3-D printing.

There is a trade-off between the pooling of nodes which reduces the cost of mitigating recurrent risks (although with diminishing marginal returns) and diversification of nodes which reduces the impact of black swan events (again with marginal diminishing returns of adding the nodes). This case was exemplified in the differential impact on the supply chains of Nokia and Ericsson—both customers of Phillips—by the destruction of the Phillips factory by fire in 2000 in New Mexico. Immediately after the incident, Nokia started sourcing its chips from other American and Japanese suppliers since Nokia practised a multiple-supplier strategy (diversified nodes). By contrast, Ericsson employed a single-source policy (pooling of nodes) and was challenged since it had no other supplier of chips (Chowdhury and Quaddus 2016). The application of 3-D infrastructure reduces steps of manufacturing since the user or factory hubs can manufacture the parts rather than waiting for their arrival. As such, companies can improve their rebound potential following disruptive events (Chopra and Sodhi 2014; Ul Haq and Franceschini 2019; Pournader et al. 2016; Wu and Barnes 2018).

Reduction in Process Steps and Reduced Lead Times

In the current process of mass manufacturing, a process called injection moulding is often used. It requires several parts, and these may be manufactured by different vendors who are geographically dispersed and therefore exposed to black swan event disruptions in their supply lines. 3-D printing removes these manufacturing complexities while creating fewer, smaller and better-performing components resulting in fewer assembly steps, leading to swifter production cycles and lower manufacturing costs (Pannett 2019; Woodlock 2019). 3-D printing facilitates faster tooling, storage and re-use of digital designs and, most importantly, the localization of the source of the raw materials (De la Torre, Espinosa, and Domínguez 2016; Moore, O’Sullivan, and Verdecchia 2016; Srai et al. 2016). The importance of in-situ AM manufacturing is highlighted in an example wherein first responders in an emergency can greatly reduce production logistics by simply delivering aluminium powder (a key raw material for AM) rather than establish a long supply chain for other materials (Brown 2018). Another example of in-situ AM is the digital manufacturing network of Hewlett Packard through which it works with several customers, including Jaguar, Land Rover and Vestas (which makes wind turbines), to manufacture in-situ parts through 3-D printing (Hand 2019).

Digitized Inventory

The use of 3-D infrastructure in a chain enables the replacement of physical inventory by a digital one thereby effectively moving the point of distinction of the product parameters further downstream to the point of use. This obviates the need for variety in stock thus reducing inventory levels and improving part availability. On-demand generation combined with the availability of digital designs would result in the readiness of the part at a lower cost at the point of use, even when the traditional chains are disrupted due to black swan events (Chen 2016; Holmström and Partanen 2014; Mikkola and Skjøtt-Larsen 2004; Meisel et al. 2016; Mohr and Khan 2015; Pérès and Noyes 2006; Van Hoek 2001; Weller, Kleer, and Piller 2015; S. Yang and Zhao 2015). An organization that adopts 3-D in its manufacturing process would need a robust ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that facilitates storage, transfer and use of digital components for in-situ production. A database of such digitized parts would also help the managers in the organization determine a build location decision based on the costs and risk analysis of the production of such parts in the chain. Components may be produced in-house, using conventional or 3-D, or parts are ordered from external suppliers (Kretzschmar et al, 2018). In the use of digitized inventory, the supply chains will be shortened, thereby removing the risks in planning, shipping and stockpiling that are necessary when preparing for unforeseen events (Attaran 2017; C. S. Singh, Soni, and Badhotiya 2019).

Digital Manufacturing-Assisted Hybrid AM (DMHAM)

The adoption of AM in a production line results in the manufactured part having a rough surface finish and inaccurate dimensional tolerances, which is a challenge for the adoption of AM technology in its pure form (Y. Yang et al. 2018). To overcome this manufacturing process challenge, the concept of hybrid AM is being implemented. In this, a metal part is near-net produced (initial production of the item is so close to the final shape that it reduces the need for surface finishing) through the AM and thereafter post-processed via legacy techniques, such as grinding and milling (Strong et al. 2020). An example of direct metal rapid tool manufacturing 3-D printer process is shown in Figure 3. It utilizes inert/active gas welding for additive 3-D printing and then uses computer numeric controlled milling for the subtractive process to produce a near-net shape (Chong, Ramakrishna, and Singh 2018). Facilitated by a DM-assisted hybrid AM platform, the processes of additive manufacturing combined with subtractive manufacturing, in a single unit and controlled by computer numeric programs, results in producing a cheaper and higher quality part that may substantially reduce production steps.

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Blockchain-enabled 3- D and supply chain management

Blockchain technology works on distributed data structure based on transactions in a peer-to-peer network wherein the blocks are linked by cryptographic algorithms and each node has the copy of the transaction thereby making the transaction records immutable (Queiroz, Telles, and Bonilla 2019). The structure of blockchain is decentralized creating multiple copies, thereby greatly reducing the risk of a cyber-attack from hackers on a single database (Ølnes, Ubacht, and Janssen 2017). Blockchain technology may help companies in making the chains more resilient by removing intermediaries to enhance the chain efficiency and reduce network complexities and by transforming standalone manufacturing into decentralized or open manufacturing. It may also provide for mapping of chains to provide knowledge at critical junctures at the onset of an unpredictable event, shifting sourcing patterns away from the blocked or unsuitable sources to suitable ones (Hald and Kinra 2019).

5. Discussion

The concept of resilience is well entrenched in diverse fields such as the study of material objects returning to original shape after the application of stress, environmental ecosystem ecology or societal rebound in communities after an economic setback. Whereas enterprise resilience strategies work well against predictable recurrent risks, the unknown risks present due to black swan events are best dealt with when supply chains are designed through collaboration, flexibility and visibility (Cheng and Lu 2017; Kamalahmadi and Mellat-Parast 2016; Pettit, Croxton, and Fiksel 2019).

3-D printing in manufacturing supply chains introduces accurate and frequently updated visibility of demand because customers can partake in the development process thereby becoming prosumers with the manufacturing only on product demand (Attaran 2017; Nel and Badenhorst-Weiss 2010; Verboeket and Krikke 2019)—thereby improving resilience in chains (Fiksel et al. 2015).

The supply chain can be considered to have five key business processes: planning, sourcing of raw materials, production of parts, deliveries and returns. The hardest hit of these five business processes (having a cascading effect on the entire chain) are the sourcing, production and deliveries (Gulledge and Chavusholu 2008). As supply chains become more globalized, their exposure to the impact of any one black swan event is greatly increased in any one component of sourcing, production and deliveries. Adoption of 3-D printing infrastructure mitigates such risks and improves resilience by facilitating distributed manufacturing (in-situ or at-home production), shortening long supply chains by the digitization of inventory and reducing processing steps. Chains are more responsive and flexible through smart contracts and production capability closest to market of mass-customized products, facilitating delivering precisely what a customer wants, where and when they want it.

Perhaps COVID-19 and its impact on the supply lines across the globe will be the watershed event that results in a paradigm shift towards adopting 3-D printing for efficiency, transparency and agility in supply chains—a core way to render them more resilient to the effects of black swan events and for mitigating risks. The findings in this literature review show that chains can be simplified and made resilient to better withstand black swan events through the adoption of 3-D printing.


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