Are 3D Printers Fast Enough?


Since launching the results of IBM’s study on the next generation of manufacturing technologies (here or here in English and here in Chinese), I have had the opportunity to go around the world and talk to many IBM clients and industry leaders about the research.

While some – many – are skeptical about the impact of robotics, 3D printing, and open source on manufacturing, others are hoping to move forward quickly. One question that often comes is if 3D printers are fast enough. Anyone who has seen a 3D printer in action cannot help but be a bit underwhelmed. The result may seem cool, but the action feels slow compared to the blistering pace of an injection molding machine.

That conception of speed, however, may come from the current “hurry up and wait” model of supply chain management. In this environment, we make stuff very quickly using stamping and molding, and then we move it around quickly (on airplanes) yet the total time to get material to end customer is actually quite long.

To get comfortable with the Software Defined Supply Chain we need to think about manufacturing time differently. Total time from raw material to your home is often weeks or months today, even if it feels instantaneous as your rip open the box from In fact, by comparison, printing something and then assembling with a few other parts over a period of 24 hours is quite fast, from a total elapsed time standpoint.

The same question applies to scale. Manufacturing managers have a hard time imagining how many 3D printers they will need to achieve comparable production in the same factory given how big those factories are today. Again, they are looking too much at a like-for-like replacement. The future supply chain models we developed suggest a small, simple and local supply chain – lots of small factories making things in modest quantities for local consumption.

As we engage in discussions with clients around the results of our study, we keep uncovering new questions that force us to think through the results of our study and, often, think differently about how the future of manufacturing will take shape.



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Vice President & Global Industry Leader, Electronics

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