3D printers have been around for 30 years, yet the prediction of “one in every household” has not yet come to pass. When will this technology really hit the mainstream, and how will it impact our careers in procurement?
For those of us keeping an eye on the coming megatrends that will impact the procurement profession, the list of technological disruptions is a familiar one. Big data, cognitive technology, cybersecurity and blockchain are frequently included in “what’s next” articles, but here’s the thing – rather than being futuristic ideas that are 5 to 10 years away, all of these technologies are already here. What’s lacking is our ability to unlock the full (and vast) potential of these disruptive forces.
This concept holds true for another frequent inclusion in this list – 3D printing.
3D printing is still regarded as a futuristic technology despite the first additive manufacturing equipment being developed in the 1980s. The 30-year technology is seen as revolutionary even today because it is constantly evolving, and has not yet realised anywhere near its full potential. Every year we hear of innovative companies utilising 3D printing to produce cars, trucks, aircraft, clothing, firearms, and even body parts, yet these advances still tend to be reported as the “experimentation” rather than a new way of doing things.
When will we know that 3D printing has truly arrived? Perhaps it will be the day that you can walk into the showroom of an average car dealer and be told that 90% of the cars for sale are 3D printed. Or maybe when it becomes normal practice to go online to build a custom pair of sneakers that are 3D printed and delivered to your door. Or when organised crime catches on to the potential of 3D tech to print unheard-of amounts of firearms, counterfeit products, and drugs.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on the innovators who are helping push 3D printing ever-closer to the mainstream while regulators scramble to keep up. In just the past two weeks, we’ve seen:
- MINI Cooper allowing owners to 3D print custom car parts, and
- Researchers tailoring 3D printers to synthesize pharmaceuticals.
What does the rise of 3D printing mean for our procurement careers?
3D printing means that every organisation will become a manufacturer. Instead of scouring the global supply chain to find the widget that’s required, the role of supply management risks devolving into two basic steps:
- acquiring the 3D model
- ensuring your organisation’s printer has the raw material it needs.
Doesn’t sounds like a very fulfilling career, does it? To take things one step further, consider the fact that it doesn’t take a human procurement professional to perform either of those tasks. End-users could source 3D models themselves, while 3D printers are intelligent enough to manage their own stocks of materials, just as an IoT-enabled laser printer re-orders its own ink when supplies are running low.
Here’s the good news, though – the result of being freed up from the tactical work of sourcing means that the profession can concentrate on the strategic projects that we really want to be doing, rather than just responding to a buy signal.
Image from Pinshape.com.