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In 2017, I wrote a Thought Leadership Paper on the impact of 3D Printing on the US Army’s Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERP). While updating the Paper, I decided to make it more broadly applicable and also use the opportunity to share the content as part of a blog. In this first part of the blog, I’m writing about the basics of 3D Printing. Part two and three will describe the impact of 3D Printing on ERP systems by functional area, of course using the SAP ERP as the baseline. Lastly, part four will cover how another digital innovation, the Blockchain, supports 3D Printing.

But first, let’s start with the basics. 3D printing refers to the creation of a physical object through a process of adding layers of material until the object is entire. Raw materials used can be either a thermoplastic or a metal, specifically aluminum, stainless steel, or titanium. The printed objects can be of various shapes and geometries. The source of the printing process is electronic data or a 3D model.

The roots of 3D printing reach back to the 1980s, when it was referred to as “additive manufacturing” (AM). The technology has evolved, with 3D printing about to become a commodity that transforms 21st-century logistics.

In March 2017, the Department of the Army announced that the U.S Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) had successfully fired the first 3D-printed grenade from a 3D-printed grenade launcher. At the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Global Force Symposium and Exposition of 2017, ARDEC presented the concept for that success and the grenade launcher as well as the lessons learned. It was related that the soldiers could improve certain parts during the process; print custom versions of certain parts, for example, soldier-tailored grips; and produce parts at lower cost. An added benefit was their ability to invent new tools on request of the soldiers. This experience showed them that a certain level of freedom can accelerate the improvement of equipment and the creation of new equipment versions.

Needless to say, almost all industries outside of Defense are also considering or already using 3D printing. In 2016, Daimler started printing spare parts for older commercial trucks. In 2017, Boeing started using first FAA-approved 3D-printed parts for its 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Adidas sold the first 5,000 shoes consisting of a mid-sole created by 3D printers in 2017 and is planning to sell up to 100,000 by the end of 2018. In Oil and Gas, GE is producing 3D printed fuel nozzles. And the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of 3D-printed metal implants for medical procedures.

As already noted, if done right, 3D printing can transform the operational processes of organizations with logistics supply chains. Over the next years, it will impact supply chain processes, including planning, contracting, and sourcing decisions; vendor collaboration; inventories; and manufacturing, to name the key areas. This transformation will impact the ERP systems used by these organizations. The impact on these systems will depend on where and how 3D printing is used within the Organization and/or in collaboration with external service providers. Typically, the impacted areas include master data (including bills of materials), product lifecycle management and product data management, procurement, and material requirements planning and Blog 2 and Blog 3 provide more details on the functional areas.

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