Need a part half way across the country or on the other side of the globe? In the past your only option was probably to make the part and ship it. Or perhaps find a local contract manufacturer, send them the design and manufacturing information, and have them make it for you. In the future, of course, you will simply make it and “beam” it to them using your transport (a la Star Trek - thank you, Scotty).
But is there another way that might work for you in the near term? What if you were able to send the manufacturing instructions electronically and the part produces itself? That might be feasible for some milled products if you could guarantee the right metal blank to start from. Of course not many people would trust your CNC code without some inspection first, after all it’s their equipment on the line if a head crashes! But what about 3D printing?
3D printing offers some exciting new ways to make manufacturing location-independent. Given the right feedstock and 3D printer, you can “beam” your part anywhere in the world, even to a remote site like an arctic research lab, a mine. or other foreign location. But is it feasible? The short answer is a long answer, but the direction is promising. Today this can work for some parts that are purely 3D printed. For others, there are still finishing operations required after the part is printed, such as milling a surface.
Think of the possibilities. It’s a lot cheaper to stage printers and feedstock than producing parts in advance and storing them where you guess they might be used around the world, right? It’s certainly faster and cheaper to print something than to spend the time and money to ship them all over. And on-demand part creation means that you don’t have to worry about distributed inventory tying up capital or going obsolete. The printer can use the latest design available. Or need a part that is ten revisions back? No problem if you are printing it instead of storing it. And what if I want it customized? Would you mind making a quick design change or altering a finish color? Sure, easy enough.
How far will location-independent, on-demand manufacturing go with 3D Printing? Given the trajectory of the technology, I expect a long way. Now that aerospace companies are printing parts and a car company has 3D printed a vehicle, what’s to stop the trend? In fact, the car manufacturer is planning multiple, modular production cells that rely on 3D Printing and ancillary manufacturing equipment to produce entire automobiles. So beam me a car, Scotty.