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How AI and Additive Manufacturing are Changing the Supply Chain from End to End

Feb 28, 2017

Artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing (which includes 3D printing and related technologies) are exciting technologies. This is both because of how fantastical and futuristic they once seemed (and sometimes still do), and because of how much potential they have in a variety of industries and applications. While both are still fairly new, particularly 3D printing, they already have several uses in the supply chain for addressing procurement challenges, and will become even more useful as they are improved and refined.

The many advantages of additive manufacturing

Manufacturers are already taking advantage of additive manufacturing in several different ways, and as the process becomes faster and uses a greater number of materials, it has the potential to create fundamental changes in supply chain processes.

One of the common uses of additive manufacturing is rapid prototyping. It makes the creation of prototypes much easier and faster, allowing manufacturers to quickly test multiple iterations of a design. Product design can be very expensive and time-consuming, so rapid prototyping makes a considerable difference in how much development a company can afford to do.

Computer-aided design (CAD) also enable designers to perform many tests and examine multiple designs digitally, without needing to manufacture every prototype. Also, 3D printing makes it possible to create items that would be difficult or impossible to make using other processes. This allows companies to create parts that use less material and are more lightweight, saving money both in terms of material and shipping.

Finally, 3D printing also makes providing and obtaining spare parts easier and more efficient. Instead of manufacturers including spare parts that might never be used, or the buyer waiting weeks for a specific part to be shipped to them, the end-user can instead print the part themselves.

The potential to revolutionize supply chains

When this technology becomes more widespread and efficient, much more drastic changes are possible. 3D printing is currently limited in terms of how long it takes to print one object (from a few hours to at least a day), and in the types of materials that can be printed. When these factors are no longer an issue, there will be many more applications.

In the long term, companies may be able to shift production away from low-wage countries and closer to the end-user, reducing the time and expense required to ship parts and finished products halfway around the world. The ability to print products on demand will also make retailers more flexible, able to maintain a much lower inventory and to offer more customization options. While the unit cost may be higher under these methods, shipping and inventory costs would be considerably lower. These changes may still be some distance in the future, but they could make big waves when they arrive.

AI and Big Data

Artificial intelligence is already hard at work in the supply chain. Machine learning algorithms are able to take immense quantities of data, analyze them, and draw conclusions far faster than humans can. This is useful in many ways, such as locating inefficiencies in the production process and determining the best ways to reduce or eliminate them. AI can also analyze data from other operational aspects, such as financial information and team structure. By looking at information from many different parts of a business, it can find insights that would otherwise be missed.

Both of these technologies can create substantial savings in terms of expenditure and time. They can also reveal new information and enable more efficiency, in both designs and processes. They are very much worth investigating for those who are looking to improve their procurement intelligence solutions, and their future potential should not be ignored.

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