Introducing the 3DP-RDM Feasibility Studies: Redistributing Material Supply Chains for 3D printing

Following the recent feasibility study competition, the 3DP-RDM network is funding four projects in 2015. In this series of blog posts we introduce the four studies. Today we introduce the third study, “Redistributing Material Supply Chains for 3D printing”, which is being led by Prof. Matthias Holweg at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

There is a broad lack of knowledge in how material supply chains may be part of the redistribution of manufacturing through 3D printing. The potential to change the location and scale of materials supply is critical to the question of how 3D printing relates to re-distributed manufacturing. In this project we ask: Can materials supply be redistributed to bring materials production closer to primary goods production?

There are structural barriers to creating a circular economy of material flows, stemming from the large economies of scale in traditional manufacturing. Highly distributed yet valuable quantities of material waste, such as biomass, recyclable polymers, and metals, are predominantly sold into secondary materials markets rather than back into primary production. One main reason is that concentrations of valuable materials in waste are typically small compared to the amount of material needed for traditional manufacturing. When waste is aggregated in large recycling facilities, information and value is lost through mixing.

The re-distributive logic of 3D printing production, involving small batch customised production with near constant returns to scale in many markets, presents the possibility that 3D printing markets could be fed by small batch quantities of high quality waste, increasing the circulation of information and material value. This opens a compelling possibility that material supply chains could be re-distributed, bringing the scales and locations of production and consumption closer.

This study opens up a new area of academic inquiry, involving interdisciplinary research into how 3D printing, as a new manufacturing technology, can be embedded in local material economies and how such developments may gradually alter the global landscape of materials supply and manufacturing. Second, the study can supply the foundation for practical and experimental work involving waste to resource technology for 3D printing markets.

Matthias Holweg_small1Matthias Holweg is Professor of Operations Management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. His main research interests are how to manages and sustain process improvement, and how to design and manage global supply networks. Most recently he became interested in how 3D printing could reshape business models and supply chains in manufacturing. His research has appeared in the Journal of Operations Management, MIT Sloan Management Review, and California Management Review, and jointly with John Bicheno he is co-author of The Lean Toolbox, one of the best-selling handbooks on Lean implementation.

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