Category Archives: 3D printing materials

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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Interaction of materials and equipment: barriers and enablers to technological development

One of the most important aspects of industrial emergence that has been seen in earlier work is the interaction between supply and demand. For the development of new technologies to occur there must be some kind of pull from the market. This usually begins in niche markets, which although not often very large, provide the early revenues necessary for the technology to be improved and demonstrated. Such niche markets are of particular importance to early stage ventures, which cannot depend on other product lines for revenues as they attempt to establish a presence in new markets.

There are also important interactions within the supply-side, with the creation of a functioning value chain necessary for demand to be met. During the early stages of an industry, such value chains are rather simple, with firms needing to be vertically integrated in order to ensure that all stages are performed. Then as the industry begins to emerge and its financial viability becomes apparent, specialist firms take on roles within the value chain.

It is interesting to look at the 3D printing industry because there has been a need for the equipment and materials to be developed in combination so that new applications can be developed and new markets entered. Focusing now on the materials aspect of the history of the industry, we are looking to answer the following questions in our research:

  •  How has the development of new materials enabled the emergence of 3D printing technologies?
  • How has the availability of materials affected technological development?
  • What differences have there been in the development and application of polymer filaments, resins and powders, metal powders and other materials?
  • What challenges have companies faced in terms of materials supply?
  • How have companies responded to these challenges?

Previous work on the supply-demand interaction has been conducted in the commercial inkjet printing industry (see this report and journal article for reference). That work considered the interplay of printheads, inks and print systems development with market demand. The study highlighted the important role that entrepreneurial agency played in the commercialisation of commercial inkjet printing technologies, as well as how demonstrations had reduced uncertainty and led to an improvement in investor and customer confidence. This earlier work in commercial inkjet printing provides the theoretical foundation as we begin to investigate the role of materials development in the emergence of 3D printing technologies.

Relating to our third question, we wonder if there will be a substantial difference between polymer-based and metal-based applications. Polymer powders and resins have needed to be developed for 3D printing application while many metal powders already exist and are used in other applications. In commercial inkjet printing, specialist inks needed to be developed for the  printheads to operate. This meant that there was a need for printhead developers to convince ink developers that there was going to be a significant market for the inks and that it was financially attractive for investment to be made in the formulation of new inks. Has it been a similar case in any of the 3D printing technologies? We’ll report our findings in due course.

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