Is 3D Printing the Catalyst for True On-Demand Manufacturing?
Ian Wright posted on May 26, 2016 |
Recent announcements by HP and UPS could signal a major industrial shift.
(Image courtesy of UPS.)
(Image courtesy of UPS.)
Two recent announcements from HP and UPS may mark the beginning of a fundamental change in manufacturing on a scale not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

Although on-demand manufacturing isn’t exactly new—companies like Fast Radius (formerly CloudDDM), Proto Labs and 3Dilligent have been offering it for years—the entrance of major players like HP and UPS into the on-demand market could be game-changing.

UPS Collaborates with SAP and Fast Radius to Create On-Demand Manufacturing Network

Why would the world’s largest package and delivery company care about 3D printing?

The answer is logistics. Although 3D printing could eventually make physical deliveries obsolete, right now 3D printing services still need to ship their products. Rather than being eventually cut out as a middleman, UPS is aiming to stay ahead of the curve.

The company recently announced that it will launch a distributed, on-demand manufacturing network using the Fast Radius On-Demand Production Platform and SAP’s extended supply chain software. The goal is to network 3D printers at UPS Stores in over 60 locations throughout the US with Fast Radius’ 3D printing factory, integrating 3D printing into the existing UPS supply chain model.

Given that UPS is a minority investor in Fast Radius through the UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund (SEF), its choice to partner with this particular on-demand manufacturer should come as no surprise. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how long this deal has been in the works.

UPS customers will soon be able to visit the Fast Radius website to place a 3D printing order. Once it is sent, the order will then be directed to the optimal manufacturing or UPS Store based on speed, geography and production quality specifications. According to UPS, these orders can then be shipped as early as same day.

This new network will enable customers to access on-demand industrial manufacturing with SAP’s software, simplifying the production part approval process. According to UPS, the on-demand network will benefit customers of all sizes, including:

  • Manufacturers wanting to reduce inventory for slow-moving parts
  • Manufacturers with short production runs where the cost to create the mold or tooling could make these orders too expensive for traditional manufacturing
  • Manufacturers and retailers of custom/semi-custom goods
  • Industrial designers and engineers who want high quality rapid prototypes
  • Entrepreneurs, start-ups and manufacturers who don’t currently have access to 3D printers or have limited capital and time

“Connecting all The UPS Store locations into a larger network provides more opportunity for new customers to access our printers and gives customers added flexibility to match their requirements with the appropriate UPS location,” said Daniel Remba, small business technology leader for The UPS Store, Inc.

“By bringing together the on-demand manufacturing and logistics expertise of UPS and the extended supply chain leadership of SAP, we can enable direct digital manufacturing and an on-demand industrial manufacturing network that connects from manufacturing floor to the customer door,” said Bernd Leukert, member of the executive board for products and innovations at SAP.

The real takeaway from this announcement isn’t about the particular 3D printing technologies involved. What’s exciting here is the implementation of what is essentially an Uber model of manufacturing. The days of centralized production could soon be coming to an end.

HP Selects Proto Labs to Test its 3D Printers

Another big piece of 3D printing news came from HP’s announcement that it would be entering the 3D printing market. Although HP’s technology is impressive, the real news concerns how the company is adapting to new norms in the printing industry. Proto Labs has been named as one of several companies that will be collaborating with HP as part of its Early Customer Engagement Program, which conducts product testing and gathers user feedback. HP selected Proto Labs because of its extensive experience with additive manufacturing.

The former company is also reportedly expanding its 3D printing capabilities as it moves into a new 77,000 sq. ft. facility in Raleigh, NC. “The new HP Multi Jet Fusion [MJF] 3D Printing Solution looks like a truly exciting leap ahead in industrial-grade 3D printing,” said Rob Connelly, vice president of additive manufacturing for Proto Labs. That could turn out to be a serious understatement if HP’s claim that its MJF is ten times faster than selective laser sintering (SLS) holds up.

HP's MultiJet Fusion 3D Printer. (Image courtesy of HP.)
HP's MultiJet Fusion 3D Printer. (Image courtesy of HP.)
Proto Labs is a “technology agnostic” company, in that it uses injection molding and CNC machining as well as 3D printing for its on-demand services. This makes it an ideal testing-ground for HP’s 3D printers, since the company opts for whatever works best for a given order. If that turns out to be MJF more often than not, so much the better for HP.

In any case, the fact that HP is exploring additive manufacturing through on-demand manufacturers like Proto Labs could be the start of a major shift for the company. Like UPS, HP may be anticipating a future marketplace where on-demand manufacturing is no longer the exception, but the rule. If so, it looks like HP’s aiming to get in on the ground floor.

How disruptive is additive manufacturing? Give us your take in the comments.

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