Opinion: 3D Printing Could Bring Supply Chain Closer to Customers

Most of the talk surrounding 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) in the trucking industry centers on how it can be used to supply replacement parts for older vehicles. But the real value in 3D printing is much greater than that, including potentially enabling a return to more customization in the initial vehicle specification and manufacturing process, reduction in life cycle costs and bringing the supply chain closer to customers.



By its very nature, 3D printing allows parts to be made on a smaller scale and without a manufacturer having to commit the major resources required to mass produce a product.

Computer and material technologies are changing rapidly, and those changes are likely to have a big impact on how products are made and how trucks are assembled.

In the past, you had several ways to make a part. You could cast it, machine it, stamp it or use injection molding.

With 3D printing, those tooling costs go away. Yes, there are costs associated with 3D printing — the printers and the materials — but the technology completely changes the dynamics of how parts are produced. As a result, we see an opportunity to introduce more variability in the design and manufacturing process versus a more limited offering in a vertically integrated production environment.

I also can see an important role for 3D printing in the manufacturing and maintenance of electric vehicles. With the reduced parts content and simplified designs of electric powertrains, 3D printing could cost-effectively support the reduction in manufacturing complexity and corresponding reduction in maintenance cost.

Plus, I expect 3D printing will provide the opportunity for reductions in equipment life cycle costs due to the introduction of less expensive and potentially lighter and more durable replacement parts. Early experience in 3D printing of car and truck parts indicates that the additive manufacturing process results in increased structural integrity and durability of a part when compared with a mass-produced formed part.

3D printing also allows for the use of different types of materials. Instead of traditional metals, it is introducing materials including plastics, composites, precious metals, ceramics and glass.

The mechanics of who will print the parts and where they will be printed still needs to be worked out, and the economics ultimately will influence the rate of adoption of 3D printing in the trucking industry. The good news is that the industry has been digitizing parts for some time; many current products already are set up in digital files.

Lastly, I believe a consequence of the emergence of 3D printing will be a reduction in supply chain distribution costs. You won’t have the cost of having to first manufacture and then ship parts across the country. You can print the part closer to where it is needed and eliminate a portion, or all, of the warehousing and distribution. This will bring the supply chain closer to the end user, where parts procurement is more “on demand.” It’s a fundamental shift from today, where manufacturers “push” product to the fleets to a scenario in which customers utilize distributed or cloud production to “pull” their parts at the time and location where they are needed.

I acknowledge that there are challenges with 3D printing. What does the future look like from the printer standpoint? How big will the printers be? How fast will they be? How expensive will they be? How versatile will they be from a materials standpoint?

From there, the question becomes who and where. Where will the parts be made? Who distributes them? The OEM? Or will it be an Amazon model, in which various manufacturers print thousands of parts and a massive marketplace enables the consolidation, procurement and distribution of those parts? Or does it start and end directly with the end user? The larger the user, the more economical it will be for them to print parts themselves.

OEMs and traditional parts manufacturers must develop strategies and prepare for a dramatically new truck parts aftermarket. Eventually, I would expect access to digital files could become part of the negotiation for the capital equipment purchase with a fleet’s OEM.

Numerous questions regarding the impact 3D printing will have on the commercial vehicle market remain, but recent advancements in the technology and its application are poised to change the way we purchase and maintain equipment, and the supply chain that supports our industry.

Cornerstone Growth Advisors, headquartered in Chicago, is a research and advisory firm providing expertise in growth strategy, technology integration and industry disruption insights.