How 3D Printing is Changing the Supply Chain

3D printing, a  form of additive manufacturing, is transforming supply chains by changing the ways things are made, producing goods with greater speed and efficiency, and enabling new products and services. Although 3D printed parts can be made of the same (or better) materials, this disruptive technology has some important differences with molding, machining, and other traditional manufacturing methods. For example, because 3D printing doesn’t require expensive injection molds, buyers can order small quantities of parts cost-effectively, and without amortizing the cost of a tool across high part volumes.

Today, there are four major ways in which 3D printing is changing the supply chain

  • Decentralization
  • Customization
  • Just-in-Time (JIT) manufacturing
  • Improved efficiency

As the following sections explain, all of these methods also reduce supply chain-related costs.


With 3D printing, products can be made locally, reducing the need for long-distance transportation. This supports faster delivery at lower costs while reducing the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain. For example, instead of molding or machining dental implants abroad and transporting them by sea or by air, and then by rail or truck transport, 3D printing can support the production of implants in a local dentist’s office. Even if on-site production isn’t possible, parts can be shipped by smaller trucks or vans – even electric vehicles – from regional dental laboratories. According to Implants Pro Center, the distance from X-rays to CAD models to 3D printed implants is remarkably short.


3D printing also supports the on-demand production of custom components for reduced waste and costs. Instead of mass-producing and warehousing many identical items, some of which may never be used, 3D printing can satisfy specific buyer demands. For example, a shoemaker that produce sneakers with custom midsoles can provide personalized support for athletes, and without manufacturing thousands of insoles for shoes that may never sell. According to Sculpteo, brands such as Adidas, Nike, New Balance, and Under Armor have already produced sneakers with 3D printed components. For its part, the automotive industry can use 3D printing to ergonomically customize knobs, switches, and buttons for vehicle interiors.

Customizable 3D Printed Endoscope Shell

Just-in-Time (JIT) Manufacturing

Just-in-time (JIT), a strategy that produces goods only as they are needed, isn’t limited to 3D printing but complements this form of additive manufacturing. For example, members of the Combat Logistic Battalion 31 (CLB-31) in the U.S. Marine Corp’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit have used 3D printing for replacement parts and aircraft components. Instead of waiting for items to arrive from distant stations, CLB-31 has 3D printed parts such as a lens cap that attaches to a camera on unmanned ground vehicles. CLB-31 has also used 3D printing to produce a part for the F-35 stealth fighter that saved the U.S. military approximately $70,000, the cost of a whole new landing gear door.


3D printing is also transforming the supply chain by eliminating the need to buy multiple parts and then assemble them. Instead of ordering one part from one supplier, a second part from another supplier, and then contracting with a third supplier for assembly services, organizations can simplify their sourcing. There are fewer purchase orders to generate, fewer deliveries to track, and fewer stocking units (SKUs) to keep in inventory. By eliminating product assembly, 3D printing technology can also minimize potential defects such as leaks. That’s part of the reason why the University of Catania used micro 3D printing technology from Boston Microfabrication (BMF) to produce micro-optofluidic devices in a single piece.


University of Catania's micro-optofluidic device

For microscale parts, BMF’s Project Micro Stereolithography (PµSL) technology is transforming supply chains in industries such as medical devices, electronics, microfluidics, micro-electro-mechanical (MEMS) systems, and education and research. To learn more, visit the Resources section of our website.