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OM in the News: 3-D Printers–The Next Frontier in OM

July 18, 2012

When the dishwasher in a Boeing cafeteria in St. Louis broke down recently, the  company’s plumber didn’t want to wait for a plastic replacement part to be shipped to the site. He asked an engineer to replicate the part on a computer screen and “print it out”. That took about 30 minutes. Hence we witness the start of another major OM advancement –the 3-D printer revolution (as reported in The Wall Street Journal, July 14-15, 2012).

Pratt & Whitney’s aircraft-engine unit is using the 3-D process to make blades and vanes in compressors inside jet engines. Honeywell’s aerospace unit employs it to build heat exchangers and metal brackets but expects to find far more applications. Boeing already makes about 300 different smaller aircraft parts using 3-D printing, including ducts that carry cool air to electronic equipment. Some of these ducts have complicated shapes and formerly had to be assembled from numerous pieces, boosting labor costs.

Abe Reichental, CEO of 3-D Systems, a printer manufacturer, says the technology also will “re-localize” manufacturing of many items. He notes that printers, costing from $500 up to $1.2 million, can be set up almost anywhere, which will allow for production of items when and where they are needed and eliminate the costs of shipping and warehousing. The Defense Department is enthusiastic about the technology, which could at some point allow it to make parts in the field rather than waiting for them to be shipped from another continent.

3-D printing also is “an enabler” for entrepreneurs who want to make products but can’t afford elaborate factories and don’t want to entrust their manufacturing to faraway firms, says Reichental. They wouldn’t need to create expensive tools or molds. Some makers of 3-D printing equipment believe that car-part stores eventually will keep their inventories in digital form—as software containing the instructions for making each item—and print out items on demand.

Discussion questions:

1. How can new start-up businesses benefit from this tool?

2. What are the disadvantages of 3-D printers?

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