Daimler Trucks is the world’s largest truck manufacturer. Like many other automotive producers, it applied 3D printing – the process of producing three-dimensional projects directly from digital designs through additive layering of material – to develop prototypes in a faster, cheaper and more flexible manner during the early days of the technology. However, as affordability and reliability of the technology improved, Daimler began to explore the applicability of 3D printing in its wider supply chain.
In September 2016, Daimler Trucks started to offer on-demand 3D-printed plastic spare parts as part of its after-sale production process. This experimentation with 3D printing was likely motivated by the potential to enhance both customer experience and product economics and the pressure to stay ahead of competition.
Customer satisfaction in the spare parts business depends highly on the availability of the parts ordered, no matter how old the truck models are, and the lead time to delivery. Traditional manufacturing requires warehouses to carry a large assortment of parts to ensure high level of customer services, with complex logistical handling to optimize the balance between inventory carry costs and delivery time. 3D printing, on the other hand, greatly simplifies the supply chain. Each vehicle service centre could store unlimited number of inventory virtually in the form of digital files at very low cost and print individual parts upon customer orders. Printing could be decentralized and done in the facilities closest to the customer to minimize delivery time. 3D printing also greatly reduces waste compared to CNC milling and eliminates the scale economy, making production of one customized part as cost-efficient as production of one hundred standardized parts. This further enhances Daimler’s ability to offer differentiated and customized products with competitive after-sale services.
Daimler is not alone in recognizing the huge potential of 3D printing, as many automotive producers actively integrate 3D printing into its supply chain beyond prototyping. For instance, its competitor, Audi, also began printing car components in 2016. To stay ahead of competition, Daimler needs to continue investing in the technology to accumulate relevant experience and ramp up the learning curve of managing supply chain integrated with 3D printing.
In the short term, Daimler plans to continue rolling out on-demand 3D-printed spare parts service by expanding the number of parts printable and number of markets covered. For instance, Daimler began to offer printed metallic spare parts in August 2017 in addition to the plastic spare parts offered the year before.
In the long term, Daimler aspires to integrate 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, into its large-scale manufacturing process. In May 2017, Daimler partnered with Premium AEROTEC, a subsidiary of Airbus Group, and EOS, an industrial 3D printing solution provider, to launch the NextGenAM project. Leveraging expertise of its partners, the project marked an ambitious effort to systematically design and commercialize the full additive manufacturing process, including processes that occur before and after printing which can account for up to 70% of overall production cost.
As Daimler ventures into the realm of 3D printing, I would recommend the management to concurrently upgrade its software infrastructure and quality control process to support the new requirements of its supply chain. To the extent that both traditional and 3D-printing-enabled supply chains will co-exist in the short term, software programs that provide features such as real-time cost comparison between manufacturing and 3D printing alternatives on each customer order and timely alignment of 3D printable parts catalogue with new product launches could help ensure the efficient and seamless interaction between both supply chains. In addition, as spare parts are now printed in decentralized facilities, stringent quality control procedures need to be designed and enforced to ensure quality of each individual part printed.
In the long term, as a large part of production process migrates towards additive manufacturing, Daimler should be keenly aware of cyber-security related risks inherent in this decentralized and networked manufacturing process and invest in relevant safeguards accordingly. One such risk is intellectual property (IP) theft, as all products will be stored in the form of digital files and shared in a decentralized manner across manufacturing sites. Another risk could pertain to hacking and corruption of the digital files transmitted in the company network. An altered digital file undetected could cause fatal product failures, including threat to driver safety in the case of a truck.
Overall, 3D printing seems to present a greater opportunity than threat to the automotive industry as it shows promises of saving significant cost, enabling complex innovation and enhancing customer experiences. However, can it become a source of sustainable competitive advantage for Daimler, or just an efficiency enhancement initiative required to stay relevant?
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