The concept of the supply chain has remained largely unchanged throughout business history: a series of services, including manufacturing and logistics, that carry a product from its raw material stage to the hands of the end user. Notably, each link in that chain deals with prefabricated materials, with the bulk of the chain's effort placed on getting them from point A to point B.

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is looking to change all that. In fact, it's already hard at work disrupting the chain we know in favor of something far more futuristic — and budget-conscious.

Vaulting transportation issues

To their credit, third-party logistics providers have done a phenomenal job of revolutionizing the way business moves products. From IoT-enabled trackers on pallets and even individual packages to real-time efficiency routing of 3PL drivers, the act of delivering a package using vehicles or planes is as streamlined as technology will allow.

What happens, however, if that package is needed faster than the speed of a networked fleet? What if the package needs to get there on a certain day, but time zones or international trade restrictions are holding up the works?

Until 3-D printing entered the scene, issues like these caused headaches for even the most talented logistical problem-solver. Now, companies actually have the opportunity to send a file in one location and pick up a physical object from another, even halfway around the world. This method sidesteps traffic, eliminates damage-in-transit issues and can manufacture more parts tirelessly until a customer order is filled.

What can be produced?

The capabilities of additive manufacturing are still being literally fleshed out, but proof of concept has been demonstrated in everything from ready-to-eat customized food to reinforced concrete bridges.

There is a special interest for manufacturers when it comes to smaller, pivotal parts of larger mechanisms components like specialty gears, housings and handles are easy to produce in networked 3-D printing locations, ensuring easy repairs or item replacement. Mediums are also stretching beyond the traditional plastic filament, with automakers Peugeot and Citroën turning to manufacturing firm Divergent 3D for additive fabrication using metal alloys.

Why use 3-D printing?

On the surface, shifting manufacturing from a traditional warehouse and its associated machinery may seem like a parallel move. In reality, however, it saves a great deal of money and effort. Without the waste of overstamping or overmolding, manufacturers can use their net gain of materials to manufacture more usable products.

3-D printing takes less energy to operate and typically doesn't require complex reconfigurations to change figurative gears. It's the tool that lean workplaces have been searching for something hardworking and precise, but not averse to change when it's needed.

The march of additive progress is great news for manufacturers: 3-D printing can now be done within UPS's network of SAP SE's collaborative locations, each of which is in the process of being outfitted with 3-D-printing technology. In fact, many already have the technology in place, and praise UPS for keeping an eye toward the future with its technological focus.

Will 3-D printing take over the entire supply chain? Chances are there will always be at least a few things that can't be replicated in a printer casing, but look toward this growing trend going forward, and be sure to assess your own business for collaboration potential.

Additive manufacturing can add just as much to your business as it does to a 3-D printing project, but be diligent about quality control during those first few sales. It will be the litmus test for making sure your 3-D expansion is on steady ground.