3D Printing/ Additive Manufacturing

How 3D Printing Enables Distributed Manufacturing

Automation Alley
July 12, 2023
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Photo by ZMorph All-in-One 3D Printers on Unsplash

Photo by ZMorph All-in-One 3D Printers on Unsplash


3D printing enables distributed manufacturing with its modular and low-cost implementation in comparison to traditional production lines. Learn about distributed manufacturing and how it will play a pivotal role in supply and value chains in the future.

The combination of 3D printing and distributed manufacturing is a testament to the advancements of Industry 4.0 when its technologies are integrated. This article will explore the relationship between 3D printing and distributed manufacturing, outlining the entailments, challenges, and potential payouts of adopting them in tandem.

What Is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of an object takes place via the successive layering of materials until the desired shape is achieved. This contrasts with traditional subtractive manufacturing processes, which involve the shaping of materials through cutting or drilling.

The advantages of additive manufacturing over traditional methods include cost savings due to quicker production times, less waste material produced, and more complex geometries that would be difficult to achieve using traditional methods.

What Is Distributed Manufacturing?

Distributed manufacturing is a new concept in the world of production and manufacturing that seeks to decentralize the traditional supply chain model. Instead of relying on centralized facilities located far from where products are consumed, distributed manufacturing focuses on providing small-scale, regional production that meets local needs.

This approach to manufacturing has several advantages, such as improved efficiency and cost savings. It also helps reduce the environmental impact of production by allowing companies to produce locally with fewer resources and transportation costs.

How 3D Printing and Distributed Manufacturing Connect

With one side of the dynamic being capable of generating specific parts on-demand, and the other leveraging the concept and benefits of shared resources, 3D printing-enabled distributed manufacturing is the combination of solutions that modern manufacturers have been searching for.

An increasing number are using it to outsource production to local areas and 3D printing services, which can be used as a supplement to in-house production. Instead of having all the parts produced in one place, each element of the assembly process is moved or shared around different locales.

3D printing enables reduced lead times by enabling mass production locally while eliminating the need for costly shipping or transportation expenses.

One caveat of additive manufacturing has been the high costs associated with smaller bundles of output. However, this method makes the most of demand by strategically allocating it en masse to third-party providers. This helps the limited number of producers with advanced equipment achieve the utilization rates they need for those technological investments to pay off.

Distributed 3D printing has proven itself to be most beneficial in the production of high-value parts that require both specialized skill and materials to craft. With it, producers of all levels are able to reliably outsource critical parts without absorbing the full overhead costs of implementing additive manufacturing in-house.

How Can 3D Printing and Distributed Manufacturing Deliver Value?

Aside from reduced overhead costs, there are plenty of other reasons why 3D printing technology and distributed manufacturing make a great pair. Read below for an overview of the most promising benefits.

Fully Digital Interactions

The entire process of distributed 3D printing is made possible by the advances in digital technologies. From quotes to component designs, all processes are done through secure and accurate digital means. This allows for a complete remote production process with minimal manual intervention needed to make sure that all parts are produced as intended.

Flexible Capacity

In-house additive manufacturing can be beneficial in terms of the oversight and ownership it offers producers, but those advantages are quickly outweighed when it comes time to change capacity or production scale. With a distributed model, companies don't need to worry about the costs of scaling up or down as demand fluctuates.

On-Demand Access to Expertise and Resources

A distributed 3D printing network can also give producers access to a variety of different resources, experts, and capabilities. This helps to ensure that projects are completed in a timely and organized manner, and with the minimum amount of effort required.

Faster Production Cycles

With supply chain stalls being damaging to the bottom line, every market can benefit from faster production timelines. Distributed 3D printing offers just that with its simplified and less resource-intensive processes.

Reduced Environmental Footprint

The great thing about digital interaction is that it can happen across borders, time zones, and cultures without the need for physical resources. This means that 3D printing can happen without having to ship components around, thereby eliminating the need for extra energy use and reducing overall environmental impact.

The Challenges of This Relationship

Like everything else in the world of logistics, combining the powers of distributed manufacturing with 3D printing requires a lot of work.

Quality Control

One of the biggest challenges is maintaining quality control across all of the participating companies. This requires a unified set of standards and an understanding that each party is responsible for its portion of production. It also means investing in the right training and technology to ensure that things are being done correctly.

System Security

IoT-enabled machines and devices are at the heart of distributed manufacturing, which means that there is a need for strong security measures to protect against data breaches. Companies must have a thorough understanding of their system architecture to ensure that they can properly secure every node and device, as well as maintain privacy between manufacturers and customers.

Full Adoption

Ultimately, distributed 3D printing will only ever be as successful as it is accepted by industry leaders. Big trends require big buy-in, and while some sectors are already embracing the concept, there is still a long way to go. Solutions to the aforementioned issues of quality control and system security should help encourage adoption, but it’s ultimately up to manufacturers, designers, and innovators to take the lead in driving distributed 3D printing into the future.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution dawns, the technology available to manufacturers is becoming increasingly sophisticated. 3D printing and distributed manufacturing are two powerful tools for production optimization that when used in concert can yield impressive efficiency gains. But while these systems have fantastic potential, they can only realize their full promise through careful consideration, strategy, and implementation. By carefully considering the various factors at play when implementing these systems into a production environment, manufacturers can ensure they’re making the most of them in the competitive landscape to come.

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Automation Alley
Automation Alley

Automation Alley is a World Economic Forum Advanced Manufacturing Hub (AMHUB) for North America and a nonprofit Industry 4.0 knowledge center with a global outlook and a regional focus. We facilitate public-private partnerships by connecting industry, education and government to fuel Michigan's economy.

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