3D Printing and IE

My daughter was looking for a current event to write about for school. Comet Ison was already done by a classmate, while international news were of no interest to her. She saw an online article I was reading on 3D printing of guns and another on the first 3D printer that can work with metal. My son joined in the conversation when I compared the technology to the replicators of Star Trek, and how 3D printers could replace things made in factories. He later asked me if that affected my job, since I’ve worked in factories.


How could 3D printing affect industrial engineering?


Lot Sizes Shrink, But IE Doesn’t Go Away  


While 3D printing may be used to make batches of items, most lots will be small. Lots of one will be as common as lots of five or ten, while factories will remain the purview of orders for thousands or more of an item. Quality metrics become more challenging when lot sizes are regularly so small. Quality metrics will shift to an overall view of the factory’s operations, instead of statistical process control used to monitor a continual process. 


Quality Remains Paramount


When people pay for 3D printing today, they tend to pay a lot of money for small lots of high quality or rarely made items. When they order just one of an object, the quality must be high because this may be the only one they have. Ironically, given the small lots, you will want to achieve Six Sigma quality levels though you’ll have far fewer data points from similar products to base your quality level metrics upon.



Supply Chain Changes


Feed stocks, raw materials, components and parts for the 3D printer are the basis of the supply chain. And disposal of items remains an outstanding concern. Distribution and shipping may be local or international, but finished products still need to make it to the customer who paid for it.




Job Shop Rules


Whether a factory has an assembly line with five hundred workers or five hundred workers each attending a single 3D printer apiece, you will have a factory full of equipment and staff. Routing of raw material and finishing operations will resemble a job shop over that of the production line.



The Back Office Remains an Area for Improvement


3D printing prices are coming down, but there is still significant need for engineers, designers, artists, programmers and IT staff. Industrial engineers will have plenty of work streamlining and standardizing back office processes. Inventory control for raw materials, ordering processes, quality checks and design processes all remain targets for process improvement.



In the comments, please give your thoughts on how 3D printing will affect the industrial engineering profession?

Filed under: An IE in IT

About the Author

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Tamara Wilhite is the IE in IT blogger for the IISE. She is a Six Sigma green belt with experience in IT, PDM software, the defense industry and recycling industries. She currently works as a freelance technical writer.