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3D Printing

Rob Martens is currently pursuing a Doctoral Degree in Business Administration at Walden University with a specialization in Global Supply Chain Management. His research topic is understanding how business leaders are developing strategies to prepare for the disruption additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, might have on their businesses.


3D Printing Without adequate preparation and business strategies, additive manufacturing (AM) technology, or sometimes referred to as 3D printing, will disrupt many organizations’ supply chains, resulting in business losses or companies becoming obsolete (Fawcett & Waller, 2014a). According to a 2015 European Economic and Social Committee report, the world market for products manufactured by AM will grow from 2.43 billion Euro in 2013 to more than10 billion Euro in 2018, and the historical compound annual growth rate has been over 25%.

New technologies, like AM, have often disrupted existing business models and have caused well-established companies to become obsolete. Companies need to assess new technologies and decide if they want to respond by resistance, resilience, adoption, or inaction (Dewald & Bowen, 2010; Sood & Tellis, 2013). The problem is some managers do not recognize the potential of AM to affect negatively their supply chains and are therefore not preparing adequate mitigating strategies.

Chuck Hull invented additive manufacturing technology in 1983 (Yen & Yao, 2015) and since then a substantial body of scholarly studies emerged on the technological application of 3D printing. However, limited academic research has been conducted on the effects of AM on supply chains (e.g. Fawcett & Waller, 2014b; Gebler, Schoot Uiterkamp, & Visser, 2014; Hasan, Rennie, & Hasan, 2013; Holmström, Partanen, Tuomi, & Walter, 2010; Khajavi, Partanen, & Holmström, 2014; Tuck, Hague, & Burns, 2007; Waller & Fawcett, 2013). Gress and Kalafsky (2015) even claimed, except for its technological aspects, AM has mostly been ignored by academics. This doctoral study will benefit business leaders and managers to prepare suitable strategies to cope with the fast approaching disruption AM will likely have on their company’s supply chains.

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Purpose Statement

The purpose of this qualitative single case study is to explore strategies supply chain managers prepared for the disruption additive manufacturing may cause to their supply chains. The target population for the study consists of supply chain managers of companies based in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom whose supply chains are prone to disruption by additive manufacturing. The results of this study may assist business leaders to identify new business opportunities for their corporations or supply chain managers in developing mitigating strategies for disruptions, which, in both cases, will result in the creation of new jobs, or, at least, fewer job losses.

Conceptual Framework

Review of literature revealed most academics regard AM to be a disruptive technology (e.g. Camisa, Verma, Marler, & Madlinger, 2014; Sebastian & Omera, 2015; Waller & Fawcett, 2013; Weller et al., 2015), however most researchers did not explain how leaders should best be preparing for this situation. In 1997, Clayton Christensen (2016) introduced the disruptive innovation theory. In this theory, Christensen (2016) described a process where a product or service initially are used in uncomplicated situations outside the mainstream application and ferociously taking over the existing market and, in the end, forcing existing companies out of the market. Additive manufacturing seems to be following the same pattern, albeit the path to maturity has been slow.

In 1983, Chuck Hull invented the AM technology (Kietzmann, Pitt, & Berthon, 2015) and as the cost of the equipment remained substantial, its main application continued to be the creation of plastic prototypes. However, resulting from further technological developments, the cost of the equipment significantly reduced while other materials became available to be 3D printed, such as metals, biological tissue, concrete, rubber, paper, or food (Chamberlin, 2013). These developments, in combination with the growing awareness 3D printed products can be designed stronger, lighter and cheaper than traditionally produced products, has sparked the interest of the maker movement (Waller & Fawcett, 2014) as well as large industrial players like Boeing, BAE Systems, Airbus, NASA, and General Electric (Camisa et al., 2014; Ford, 2014; Kietzmann et al., 2015). The application of additive manufacturing is moving at an accelerated pace soon replacing traditional manufacturing and distribution processes, a topic worthwhile researching.

Significance of the Study

Contribution to Business Practice

As a result of the disruptive technology AM is, houses can soon be 3D printed, spare parts stocks may become obsolete, products can be printed locally thereby reducing (sea) transport and storage, and parts can be manufactured faster, stronger, and cheaper. Such circumstances are a recipe for market and supply chain disruption and companies need to prepare themselves for this. The potential for disruption is echoed by Petrick and Simpson who claimed ”3D printing may represent a disruption to the manufacturing industry as profound as the Industrial Revolution.” (2013, p12). The mainstream thought among scholars is, companies affected by disruptive technology need to embrace the change instead of fighting it as it mostly is irreversible (Adner & Snow, 2010). Dewald & Bowen (2010) argued small companies often are less ingrained in their ways and have an improved opportunity to adapt or even look beyond the disruption for new opportunities when they show cognitive resilience.

Large firms like Kodak, Nokia or Wang, on the other hand, were led by managers who were inflexible and not open to new technologies; they were only able to battle on the playing field they knew and understood. Smaller firms often operate at the near survival level and show much more resilience before going under or are quickly adapting to the new reality (Dewald & Bowen, 2010). Many companies have not been able to transition into new situations, but some have successfully survived in producing the “old” technology. Motorboats replaced sailboats, and ball pens replaced fountain pens. However, sailboat shipyards in Holland are successfully selling expensive sailing yachts and luxury brand companies like Montblanc or Waterman are still selling expensive fountain pens. These examples are not the result of management failures but more the outcome of deliberate strategies to further exploit the opportunities of the old technology (Adner & Snow, 2010). Analog to Darwin’s warnings, only adaptable companies will survive.

Management is responsible to be informed about this disruptive technology called 3D printing, form an opinion about it, develop mitigating or integrating strategies to survive, and thrive in this new world (Fawcett & Waller, 2014b). Disruptive technology affects existing industries and also results in social change. Chiefly, this social change is a side effect of the disruption and not the original intention of the disruptors (Christensen, Baumann, Ruggles, & Sadtler, 2006)

Implications for Social Change

Additive manufacturing has the potential to be a significant driver of social change. Gebler et al. (2014) concluded AM requires substantially less money and energy to create products, compared to traditionally manufactured goods, thereby reducing both CO2 emissions and cost. Gebler et al. revealed production might shift back from developing to developed countries, thereby creating social instability. Finally, Gebler et al. concluded AM will reduce waste, as spare parts can be printed, removing the need to dispose of equipment that cannot be serviced anymore as a result of non-available spare parts and the reduction of waste during the production process. Others pointed to the medical applications of AM technology such as implants, prostheses, rehabilitation devices, and medicines (Ford, 2014; Kietzmann et al., 2015; Tuck, Hague, Ruffo, Ransley, & Adams, 2008), signifying another positive social effect of additive manufacturing.

Next Steps

If you are interested to learn more about how additive manufacturing might impact your company or if you would like to participate in the research project, please contact us.

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