Modern Retail

3D Printing Paves the Way for Digital Warehouses and Local Manufacturing

3D printing warehouses

In the not-so-distant future, manufacturing may no longer be associated with warehouses filled with stacks of finished products waiting for shipment. Instead, 3D printing allows manufacturers to easily produce parts to order. On-demand printing requires little physical storage space, allowing manufacturers to reduce overheads by moving production closer to the intended market, and shortening the length of the supply chain. The technology is also well suited for low-volume and customised products, particularly replacement parts. Shifting this segment of work to 3D printers from factory floors frees up traditional manufacturers to focus their time, energy and talents on other goods. Why does a digital warehouse matter, where do you begin and how does the industry help to pave the way?

Disruption of the aftermarket supply chain

In a conventional supply chain, spare parts would be mass-produced to save costs and reduce lead time, yet are manufactured to serve aftermarket demand that may, or may not, be there. Stock would either be stored in a central warehouse or distribution centre to lessen the overall cost of inventory and allow for greater control over and visibility of stock levels, which had the consequence of longer lead and delivery times, or alternatively stored in a series of regional warehouses to ensure quick delivery to the end destination, but at higher costs.

However, with 3D on-demand print, companies can design their products centrally and have their products manufactured locally, which mitigates the risk (and cost) of stockouts and over-stocking; ultimately companies can create what they want, when they want it. With the use of a toolpath, these items, which are stored as ‘digital inventory’, can be manufactured at any time as long as there is access to a printer.

In digital inventory solutions, the warehouse itself is shelved in favour of an on-demand production facility located near the source of need. Digital files sent securely from the manufacturer ensure OEM-accurate designs, irrespective of their global origin. 3D printing and post-processing these files on-site on a reliable system with proven repeatability in quality mitigates the need for global shipping. The implications in logistics are significant, reducing the time a customer waits for a needed part while also cutting down the carbon footprint of freight.

Speeding up slow-moving parts

At this moment there are only a few companies that have fully embedded 3D printing as a solution to reduce their physical warehouses. Identifying which parts are 3D printable is the first stage of the process. Carefully evaluate the bill of material and determine which parts can be replaced from injection moulding to 3D Printing. For very little cost, 3D printed parts can be made on-demand with the physical qualities that approach those of injection-moulding.

Industries that can benefit immediately from the technology are those with low volume products, such as companies that create complex machines that have a large amount of slow moving parts. Often very specific parts, from which only need a few of them are needed and that wait a long time in the warehouse to use. When it comes to slow-moving parts, 3D printing offers guaranteed product availability through on-demand manufacture. Research of MIT has found that through the adoption of 3D printing, companies can reduce spare parts inventory by 90% and still ensure 100% availability. And considering that slow-moving parts make up approximately 80% of all spare parts for the automotive industry, this deployment would mean complete disruption within this industry.

By essentially replacing the ‘just-in-time’ inventory, virtual warehouses can send 3D model files to the closest 3D printer. For example, if a machine part breaks, there is no need to have a warehouse for these slow-moving parts – which suppliers have to maintain in order to meet contractual regulations – as they can be 3D printed on request. Not even on their own premise, but near the customer that needs it.


This on-demand part production also facilitates the opportunity for greater levels of personalisation for finished or almost-finished goods. For other items which require custom designs, they can be individualised with little to no lead-time.

The ThisAbles project, enabled by IKEA Israel, is a great example of personalisation through digital warehousing. Through smart hacks, which are smart additions that bridge some of the gaps between existing IKEA products, ThisAbles are able to make IKEA’s best selling products accessible to those with disabilities – and they maximise accessibility at every stage of the project. The models are available for download on the project’s website, for 3D printing anywhere in the world and closest to the location of the person in need for this customised part.

Although the industry has a long way to go before the removal of all moving parts from warehouses, local manufacturing through 3D printing is a move that companies need to begin to make, lest the competition will.

The capabilities are endless; beginning with spare and slow-moving parts is the best way to start the process. The 3D printing industry is currently at full speed in paving the way to realize these digital warehouses. There is software out there that can help to identify if an existing part can be 3D printed or not. Hardware related, FFF is a reliable method that requires little to no post processing and allows people to start printing immediately, hassle and worry-free. Besides the software and the hardware, materials are also key in rapidly speeding up production of spare and slow moving parts. In this sense, the material and 3D printing industry are currently joining forces to deliver full material freedom, so you can use what you need for your specific requirements.

In the end, rethinking and redesigning your current parts for 3D printing to transform the physical warehouse to a digital one, is an exciting process which also fuels innovation and progress through custom design and personalisation, and ultimately has the potential to transform the supply chain.

Credit: Paul Heiden, SVP Product Management, Ultimaker