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AM, Spare Parts, and the Rise of the Micro Factory

Ryan Martin
By Ryan Martin Principal Analyst, ABI Research

Manufacturing got smart when companies figured out how to make products in one market and sell them in another. Today, we call this supply chain logistics. But somewhere along the way, the innovation chain connecting supply (manufacturing) and logistics (the supporting infrastructure) started to diverge. Now, the industrial sector is scrambling to catch up, change the way products are designed, rethink the way they are produced and improve the way they are sold, serviced and delivered.

Additive manufacturing (AM) has been around for more than 30 years, but only recently have multi-disciplinary advances in material sciences (multi-metal), metrology (in-situ monitoring) and design (generative engineering) started to converge on the technology’s use in structural and mission-critical commercial applications. Following these advances, the passing of a patent cliff and an ever-increasing desire to cater to the customer will make 2019 the year that production additive manufacturing got on the map.

Economic Value Chain Reversal

Products are typically made in high volumes to drive down costs. A big part of these costs has to do with tooling, machine setup, operation and the additional cost-of-time component with which they are associated. This is why a lot of metal injection molding providers turn away more customers than they engage with; low-volume production isn’t worth their time.

Additive manufacturing changes all of this by shifting cost management control from activities that are transactional (moving a part from A to B, turning a part to be cut or milled, and coordinating with machine shops and component suppliers) to those that are continuous (raw materials, feedstock, energy consumption/conservation). There is a big transition period during which all of this will happen, but AM for production applications will only achieve scale when the technology/application alignment is such that it is as affordable to produce a lot size of one as it is to produce large volumes.

For example, if an AM machine can only produce parts of a certain thickness, then it is limited to certain applications. While the size of the build platform has been a major constraint up to this point, newer technologies like electron beam melting (EBM) are being combined with legacy manufacturing technologies like five-axis CNCs to produce output of larger sizes (e.g., a car chassis).

Geometry, Volume, and Material

Additive manufacturing shifts cost management control from activities that are transactional to those that are continuous.

The availability of metal and production additive manufacturing marks a shift in the way things are done and, for suppliers, creates the ability to better dictate the priority, timeliness, and process that best fits their manufacturing needs. While there will always be a decision about whether to produce using additive or subtractive manufacturing methods, it generally boils down to geometry, volume, and material. Can a part be made one way and not another? What is demand and how does it line up with unit economics? What is the cost, availability, and reliability of inputs?

For tooling and metal injection molding providers, which may at first view AM as a threat, these new technologies present a way to not only protect but also expand their core markets. Rather than turn away smaller customers, they could use AM to build an intermediary MIM tool so they can not only engage but also have the potential to grow with those that do end up needing investment-level casting.

Likewise, spare parts supplier networks such as those traditionally maintained by UPS, FedEx, DHL, and others could employ machines and feedstock (rather than part stock) in order to produce on demand. In fact, this is what UPS has been doing for several years now, as detailed in the ABI Research report, “Additive Manufacturing in Industrial Applications.” UPS saves a lot of warehouse space, and now others want to get in on the action as well.

Specialist AM Original Equipment

Model of a smart factory equipped with AGV, robot carrier, 3D printers and robotic picking system.

Manufacturers (OEMs) like 3D Systems, EOS, and Stratasys have primarily led the charge in AM due to their market tenure and resulting credibility with a wide range of companies and applications. Carbon, Digital Alloys, Desktop Metal, and Markforged are some of the new kids on the block, but they should be taken just as seriously. System integrators (SIs) and professional services firms like Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, and PwC simply need to get serious about AM in general.

AM brings production closer to the places where products are sold and used, offers an avenue to reallocate fixed and working capital (including space and the application of personnel), and fundamentally changes the rules of engagement. Now, all it needs is an integrated digital platform.

About the Author: Ryan Martin covers new and emerging transformative technologies, including AM, industrial data management, intelligent supply chain, and the IoT for ABI Research. Martin currently leads the firm’s Industrial Solution and Enterprise IoT research. Contact ABI at 516-624-2500 in the Americas, +44 203 326 0140 in Europe, +65 6592 0290 in Asia-Pacific, or visit

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