Will 3D Printing Disrupt the Metalworking Industry?

Based on the survey, machinery companies have high potential to realize great benefits with 3D printing.

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Editor’s Note: Every year, 40 or so students in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics' (MIT CTL) Master of Supply Chain Management (SCM) program complete one-year thesis research projects. The students are early-career business professionals from multiple countries with 2 to 10 years of experience in the industry. Most of the research projects are chosen, sponsored by, and carried out in collaboration with multinational corporations. Joint teams that include MIT SCM students and MIT CTL faculty work on the real-world problems. In this series, we summarize a selection of the latest SCM research.

Historically, metalworking has involved a process called subtractive manufacturing, where a metal block is put inside a computer-controlled machine. The machine cuts the block into desired shapes that later become automotive, aerospace, or electronic parts. In most cases, it takes multiple cutting steps and processes to create a component, given the complexity of the desired shape.

The advent of 3D printing (sometimes called additive manufacturing or AM) could potentially disrupt the traditional metalworking process. In 3D printing, powdered materials are joined to create a solid object in almost any shape. The technology poses a significant challenge to metalworking companies, given that metal parts can be printed in only a single step, resulting in lower cost per unit and lower lead time at low volumes.

Potential industry transformation

Even though 3D printing still plays a very small role in the metalworking industry, the adoption rate has been increasing rapidly in the last few years. Key benefits of the technology over the traditional process include faster production cycle time, lower cost at low volume production, complexity reduction, and design freedom. 3D printing allows designers to create complex geometries in a single step, and the design requirements are not constrained by the manufacturing process. The technology is attractive for creating prototypes and highly customized parts in small batches.

However, as with any new technology, the real improvements may or may not live up to the promised benefits. The sponsoring company for this research project, a major industrial distributor, wants to understand the real impact 3D printing can have on its customers, since the industry could experience major changes in the next few years with the advance of the technology.

To tackle the problem, we conducted interviews and an online survey with metalworking companies in various industries to understand the application and gauge the impact of 3D printing on metalworking companies. The results were analyzed and compared with data gathered from the interviews.

Still a long way to go

Our analysis suggests that 3D printing still needs to evolve before it can be widely adopted by the metalworking industry, and still encounters barriers to adoption. From the study, the technology will be mainly used only for prototyping and small batch manufacturing in the short term (3-5 years), rather than for mass production. Currently, the main barriers to AM adoption are the high initial investment, lack of quality standards and the limited variety of metals available.

However, using the adoption data collected from the survey, we were able to identify the customer segments that the sponsor company should prioritize if they were to enter the 3D printing market. We prioritized customer segments based on two criteria: 3D printing market potential and our sponsor's capability to serve that segment (where we used market share as a proxy to measure).

The results show that the company should prioritize small- and medium-sized machinery manufacturing companies. Based on the survey, machinery companies have high potential to realize great benefits with 3D printing. In addition to lower cost and reduced lead time, the technology allows customization of parts and design flexibility in an industry that typically makes more customized parts than other industries. Moreover, the sponsoring company has a relatively high market share within these segments, making it easier for the enterprise to up-sell and offer new products.

We believe this research will benefit not only the industrial distributor that sponsored our research, but also other companies in the metalworking industry who want to understand the impact 3D printing can have on their future revenues.

The SCM research project 3D Printing's Impact on the Metalworking Industry was authored by Sittipat Assavaniwej and Aline Ingberman and supervised by Jim Rice, Deputy Director, MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. For more information on the research please contact Jim Rice at [email protected].

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