So said Captain Kirk when he wanted to make a quick trip between the starship Enterprise and a nearby planet. When you think about this logically, it sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? But maybe not……For the past two years, the concept of 3D printing has been getting an increasing amount of press in various trade journals and other publications. Frankly, when I first heard of it, I just assumed it was the ability to print a three dimensional picture which could be viewed without the goofy glasses. But a minimal amount of research revealed it is much more than that. As many of our readers will already know, this technique, also called additive manufacturing, allows the use of computer aided design (CAD) in developing renderings which can be transmitted to a 3D “printer” which will “print” or construct the solid object.
Currently, when manufacturing large quantities of polymer products for example, techniques such as injection molding can be faster and cheaper, but when only a few are needed, you can print them right at your desk or at someone else’s desk halfway around the world. 3D printers already can be found at retailers such as Staples or Radio Shack, or if you prefer, you can submit your drawings to one of the several websites of 3D printing services.
In March of this year, doctors in The Netherlands reported that they had replaced most of a woman’s skull with a 3D printed plastic one. The operation was successful and the patient is living a normal life.
Already a proven process, it is not at all unrealistic to think that someday it might be a significant part of our lives. And if so, think about the implications for the supply chain. What if many products no longer required “transportation” in the context we know it today? What if there was no need for inventories since products could be “printed” on demand? If you let your imagination run wild, you can envision any number of supply chain impacts. Maybe Star Trek wasn’t as farfetched as we thought.