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3D printed gummy sweets are now a thing. It was inevitable really. Everyone likes sweets, they don’t take long to make, and you get the added benefit of witnessing your unique creation being assembled shortly before you scoff it down.

Being from a software development background, what I want to know is, “what does the ERP system think about it?”. That’s because, as with any scaled-up form of modern production, the relationship between ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems and manufacturing infrastructure is a crucial one. ERP systems govern the fundamental business processes that enable organisations to produce goods when and where they are needed, in the most efficient way possible. As 3D printing increasingly goes beyond mere prototyping and into full-blown production, that has some very big ramifications for how ERPs cope, and continue to drive value into the business.

So forget the sweeties for a moment. I’m talking about every disruptive new business application for 3D printing. In all the excitement that has come with 3D printing opportunities, the knock-on effects upon consumption models and supply chains are only now beginning to be understood. These in turn are having a significant impact upon traditional business processes and software.

Chaos will ensue if quality processes aren’t the number one priority

Let’s just pause here a moment and consider where manufacturing production has come from, so we can better understand its trajectory. Prior to 3D printing, the progressive evolution of traditional manufacturing had brought us:

*Fewer sites at fewer locations, concentrating plant equipment *Increased mean transportation costs and the need for lots of customer inventory at far-flung warehouses.

But at least fewer sites and bigger plants meant an optimum focus on quality, as well as greater economies of scale. Software has played a major part in increasing automation in these facilities. In the back-office, ERP software has been a driving force for more efficient processes and reduced waste.

3D printing heralds an exciting, revolutionary new model for manufacturing where production happens far closer to the consumer; potentially even by the consumer. The priority for the license-holder or IP-owner of the manufactured product boils down to ensuring consistent quality, but the challenge is how to achieve this without traditional in-situ control. The implications of this include:

*The need for ERP systems to be accessible to more people in more places to ensure quality manufacturing processes, with simple and intuitive user interfaces and data visualisation dashboards needed to lessen the requirement for intensive user training *Highly robust document control and ERP system integration with secure data sources to manage authorised access to the latest blueprint version and its constituent manufacturing ‘ingredients’ *Closely monitored and continually maintained integration between ERP and EAM (enterprise asset management) systems to safeguard and uniformly upgrade quality assurance of 3D printing devices *More advanced and dynamic forecasting capabilities to ensure the availability of raw materials is perfectly aligned with highly localised manufacturing demand

3D printing is representative of a far wider trend toward disruptive, digital business technologies

Rather than get any deeper into the gubbins of ERP and 3D printing, the interrelationship of these elements – the whizzy new tech and the apparently more ponderous process-orientated software – gives a glimpse into a wider trend. Namely, that it will be the task of large software systems to adapt to so that the businesses that run them can take advantage of new technologies and stay relevant and competitive.

Imagine, if you will, a dog with its litter of three-week old puppies. The dog appears to stays still while the pups around it create a host of distractions, expend energy and generate mess. In this metaphor, the puppies are the recently emerged technologies (like 3D printing) that threaten to disrupt and wreak havoc in their environment. The mummy dog is the robust, resourceful and calming influence at the centre of the puppies’ world. With each new arrival, mum (or, if you like, an ERP system) is forming a bond with each of them, focusing them on learning important activities and patiently enduring bouts of overeagerness.

Overeagerness is one of the many symptoms of new technologies as they progress along their adoption curve. Whether it’s 3D printing, artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things, rest assured there are many more innovations to be implemented. All will need to integrate with existing software to deliver their value; making them better mothers in the process.