There is truth to the adage that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. And over the past two years, COVID-19 revealed the true character of the global supply chain. Turns out, it’s a fragile system built on geographic concentrations of materials and manufacturing facilities, and is plagued by logistical bottlenecks. It was built largely to minimize costs, not to weather disruptions caused by pandemics, labor disputes, natural disasters, or geopolitical conflicts.
This is why so many companies are re-evaluating their procurement strategies and looking for better ways to source the parts they need.
The supply chain is changing as the challenges of the pandemic have prompted many companies to re-evaluate the way they operate — and take steps to introduce more agility and resilience into their vendor management strategies. 3D printing technology represents a powerful tool that can help companies strengthen their supply chains if they’re willing to change the way they work.
All sorts of products, materials, and components have become difficult to procure at various times during the pandemic thanks to supply chain disruptions. And with most of the world's manufacturing capacity concentrated in a few geographic locations, companies have had limited alternative options to acquire the parts and materials they need.
One way to ameliorate this bottleneck is to leverage a distributed network of additive manufacturing facilities. These facilities serve as an alternative that provides on-demand, decentralized production. By spreading production over a wider geographic area, the supply chain is far less vulnerable to localized disruptions like weather events and geopolitical conflicts.
A distributed network of 3D printing suppliers also provides redundancy if a supplier or two goes down. Lastly, this distributed model facilitates last-mile manufacturing, which eliminates many of the risks that come with relying on overseas suppliers.
Designing Products With 3DP in Mind
Because of the unique nature of the technology, additive manufacturing capabilities can be added more easily and ramp up production more quickly than other methods. They also make it easy to produce a variety of customized parts without needing to change tooling or equipment. And, with production-grade 3D printing technology becoming increasingly available in the US, companies can either choose to work with dedicated suppliers or own the means of production themselves.
Granted, 3D printing technology still has its limitations and doesn’t always meet the needs of production use cases. Even if a printed component can be constructed using the same material as a machined, molded, or cast part, it doesn’t work as a one-for-one replacement — 3DP parts often don’t react the same way to stresses and environmental variables as parts made with other methods.
Traditionally, 3D printing has been used most often for prototyping and product development, but additive manufacturing is no longer limited to such use cases. Current technologies are capable of fabricating production-grade parts for a range of applications.
But to leverage the technology in a production setting, companies have to account for the unique traits and limitations of additively manufactured parts from the beginning of their design process. In addition to modifying part designs, a lot of time and effort must also be spent validating and qualifying 3DP parts meant to replace machined, molded, or cast components.
High Quantity Production
Of course, Not all 3DP methods are suitable for high output production. Multi-Jet Fusion (MJF) technology is, and has high-resolution capabilities that allow for smaller, more precise features, too. And, because MJF is a powder bed printing process, support material isn't needed, which reduces cost and cleaning times compared to other 3DP processes. At the right volumes, this technology may have the ability to replace traditional tooling-based strategies for production.
HP MJF machines are designed for high output with large build beds: 365 x 269 x 365 mm (15 x 11.2 x 15 in). Once a bed of parts has been printed, it can be swapped out with a fresh bed of powder — which enables the machine to print components continuously while the finished parts cool down. When set up properly, the technology allows for continuous production without the risk of warpage.
By planning for 3DP production from the outset, a host of benefits are realized — waste and material cost reductions and energy savings, too. And on-demand production drastically reduces inventory requirements, which in turn reduces warehouse footprints and logistics risk.
And if the past two years are any indicator, future supply chain disruptions will be particularly hard on logistics. Covid caused and amplified labor shortages in the industry, while geopolitical conflicts slow the flow of goods and materials around the world. All of it has rendered logistics increasingly erratic and unreliable over the last two years, which has made the lean, just-in-time manufacturing model far riskier for companies relying on overseas suppliers.
The presence of production-quality additive manufacturing in the US makes reshoring production a more feasible option and the localized and digitized nature of additive manufacturing is well suited for just-in-time production — it helps free companies from the vagaries of international shipping and customs timelines, and lets them make the parts they need when they need them.
From creating resiliency to enabling greater product customization and eliminating logistical risks, the right additive manufacturing strategy may minimize the impact of disruptions, keep production lines moving, and keep revenue coming in.
3D printing isn’t always the right solution, of course, but the technology’s flexibility and digital nature are ideally suited to help companies better navigate supply chain disruptions — and companies around the world are figuring out just how powerful and useful a tool 3D printing can be.
Dave Evans is co-founder and CEO of Fictiv.
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