3D Can't Turn Sow's Ear Into a Purse


I get a lot of questions from manufacturing leaders about 3D printing: Is it really a long term threat to their business? Should they be investing time, money and resources in it to get out near the head of the curve? Will it redefine manufacturing in general and their industry in particular? My answer: Have your R&D people keep an eye on it and perhaps it will some day be a cost effective approach to prototyping. Otherwise, unless their business is one off production of tooled products it won’t amount to nearly as much as the Wall Street and business press folks who know little about manufacturing – and less about lean – think it will.

No big surprise to me that the Wall Street Journal prints articles like “3D Systems prints everything but money”, acknowledging that the biggest player in the 3D business isn’t coming remotely close to meeting any reasonable profit numbers. The article closes with the usual nonsense one reads about 3D – “Yes, 3D printing may one day churn out anything from automobiles to artificial limbs.” Automobiles? When pigs fly, perhaps. Artificial limbs? Perhaps but only within the context of a manufacturing company. The notion that individuals will own 3D printers and crank out their own products – the stuff the Wall Streeters wax euphorically about – is utter nonsense.

The basic problem with all of the pipe dreaming about 3D printing is that it is a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist. It replaces the value adding element of manufacturing with technology … in the end nothing more than yet another form of automation to get rid of direct labor. But, as anyone with lean insight knows, it is not the value adding that is the problem. It’s all the rest. The supply chain is fraught with waste, as are many manufacturing companies. The 5 or 6% of the cost represented by direct labor is a non-issue, which is why those who gallivant around the globe looking for cheaper direct labor usually end up spending a lot more than they save. More to the point, it is why companies that pour staggering amounts of money into automation aimed at getting rid of direct labor rarely see much real improvement.

If I were to buy a 3D printer so I can make my own stuff it wouldn’t be to replace the manufacturing cost. It would be to get rid of all the non-value adding waste in the supply chain. As I sit here writing this I can consider the coffee cup next to my laptop. If I could make it with my own 3D printer, I could theoretically save on the direct labor cost of the cup – assuming it would take less time than the fraction of a minute someone working in the Acme coffee cup manufacturing company spends on it, and assuming my time is worth less than that person’s time. My savings, however, would be pretty well gobbled up by the material cost. Exactly where would I get the coffee cup material to feed my 3D printer, and how would that math work out? How will the supply chain that provides me with the material be any less wasteful than the supply chain that now provides me with a coffee cup?

Material science is a serious endeavor. There is a reason why steel comes in lots and lots of different grades and hardnesses. There is a reason why the folks who sell plastics have a lot more than one product. There are good reasons why composite materials are a big industry. 3D printing cannot possibly make everything from one medium. The same cost versus attribute math applies to the materials used in 3D printing, which mean I have to have lots of small quantities of medium to feed my 3D printer, which means I better have my own personal supply chain management system to go with my personal 3D printer – or be prepared to buy it JIT from some very wasteful 3D material retailer, pretty much negating the money I saved from not just buying the product.

Then, of course, there is that whole quality can of worms – no simple matter, as just about every manufacturer knows. There seems to be an illusion that, somehow some sort of magic quality assurance karma is embedded in 3D printers. That would truly be remarkable if it were true. It would belie the old Motorola mantra that automating something before the quality is controlled merely allows you to make defective products faster than you ever before thought possible. I suppose my 3D printer could have templates and rules that enable me to only make stuff that has the Cpk math all worked out making it difficult for me to make anything the 3D printer might not be able to control … but once again that would pretty much take away the promised flexibility. If I am limited as to the nature of coffee cup designs I can make where have I gained from going to the store and selecting one from their preset designs?

It goes on and on. There is so much more to manufacturing than the actual transformation of the material, and most manufacturers have that part very well nailed down. It is all of the other stuff surrounding the material transformation that matters – done well it results in very, very good manufacturing. That is what lean is all about. Done poorly it causes companies to fail. In the hands of an individual 3D printing simply assures those support and supply chain processes will be poorly executed, expensive or severely limiting … probably all three. 3D printing done by manufacturers won’t change the equation. Those that do well with existing technologies will do well with 3D printers selectively applied in their processes; while those that struggle to make money with old school technology will struggle just as much with 3D technology.

In other words, excellent lean producers will thrive while poorly managed companies won’t; and the emergence of 3D printing (or any other whiz bang technology) won’t change that simple fact.

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