The New Normal for Global Manufacturing


During the coronavirus pandemic, many manufacturers in the U.S. and globally were forced to stop production as borders closed to try to prevent the spread of the virus.  As a result, the usually seamless global supply chain to source parts and materials broke down.


Against this backdrop, the 3D printing industry has proven instrumental in the production of essential medical equipment ranging from face masks to ventilators. A key reason why additive manufacturing has been so effective during the pandemic: it doesn’t rely on a global supply chain.


Additive manufacturing has enabled companies to shift the sourcing of parts from remote locations to on-site production facilities. It also accelerates time to market because additive manufacturers can make needed parts in a matter of hours, solving the current problem of waiting on global suppliers. If companies can produce parts themselves, without relying on global suppliers, they’ll be in a stronger position to get their products and meet customer demand.


A key question is whether these alternative sources will become a permanent backup?   


Complexity Leads to Fragile Supply Chains

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State recently said: “China is, remarkably, the repository for all of these orders – ventilators, PPE – it all comes back to China, which in the long term, we have to figure out why we wound up in this situation, where we don’t have the manufacturing capacity in this country. I understand supply chain issues, I understand the cost of manufacturing, but there’s a public health reason why we learned the hard way why we need the capacity in this country to do this.”


The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc not only on the world’s health but also on global supply chains. It has shone a light on a lot of the challenges with classic just-in-time manufacturing. It has also highlighted the challenge faced by the distance that we typically see between production and consumption.


Most of the world’s producing nations are in Asia and most of the consuming nations are not only Asian but obviously include the rest of the world. This geographic distance alone removes the ability for the supply chain to be agile. There’s a huge component of agility that’s integral to the just-in-time model, but when you’ve got distribution and a lot of physical distance also baked into the supply chain, it becomes quite challenging to have that model really work.


It is not just the ‘global’ nature of supply chains that is making them susceptible to disruption, it is also the concentration of technologies in specific locations. Critical capabilities locked into fewer and fewer companies is a major factor which can lead to disruption. But moving supply chains needs to make economic sense to be successful.


Additive Manufacturing Reaching Inflection Point

We see a significant increase in the use of additive manufacturing to cover the gaps that COVID-19 created in existing supply chains. While many agile technologies with simple support structures and fixture-less processing have been adopted during this crisis, the technologies which have the capability to scale will remain and prosper in manufacturing environments.

The latest 3D printing platform innovations including hardware, software and materials are coming together to help companies manufacture in new ways – while removing all the historical barriers. AM at scale is now starting to transform manufacturing across sectors including aerospace, automotive, contract manufacturing services and biomedical. Essentium’s research shows that two-thirds of companies reported they have more than doubled their use of industrial-scale AM over the past 12 months.


COVID-19 has made our tremendously inventive manufacturers think outside the box. This reshuffling of the deck will unleash many new technologies, processes, and ways to apply them to supply chain issues.


Creating a Sustainable Supply Chain

In deciding where to produce a product, a manufacturer’s primary concern is the local infrastructure and supply base. A strong localized manufacturing base improves costs, time-to-market, and often provides other sourcing options.


An additive enabled supply chain can respond quickly, flexibly, but often in unexpected ways. This becomes the new normal for engineers familiar with additive manufacturing. Here are just some examples of how additive manufacturing is being deployed:

  • Part substitutions on the final product or production machines
  • Quick fixture changes to adapt to part shortages and substitutions
  • Part mockup to allow out-of-sequence assembly
  • Bridge production to keep assembly lines moving
  • Electronics fixtures to keep PCB assemblies and SMT lines producing

Many manufacturers are working furiously to qualify new suppliers around the world and source the parts they need at the lowest price. But, with additive manufacturing, new opportunities exist for many types of components to where manufacturers may no longer need to source those parts from distant suppliers. Instead, they can simply search the availability of materials and then begin the process of building those parts in-house. Not only will they reduce the time and money it once took to purchase and transport parts, they will greatly speed time to market, which is crucial in these unprecedented times.


Long-Term Shifts in Supply Chains

We are likely to see a lasting shift in the way manufacturing operates. The virus is bringing people together to embrace digital technology - like additive manufacturing - to overcome challenges such as sourcing parts currently produced in offshore locations.


However, Essentium’s recent research showed that, in addition to designers and engineers expanding their knowledge of additive, the procurement and finance teams at many organizations need to acquire new skills to understand, and subsequently unlock, the benefits of additive manufacturing technology.

For example, a key issue to recent shortages has not only been access to materials, but a surge in demand – requiring a surge in capacity.  Procurement teams typically know how to buy assets or how to buy components, but they are less familiar with how to buy capacity.


By installing equipment that is highly flexible, manufacturers can begin to address supply chain risks by allowing parts to be produced locally, or by printing jigs, fixtures and tooling to keep factories operating at the scales they’re used to without prolonged lead times. As 3D printing overcomes obstacles to large-scale production, it will help companies gain market share, bring manufacturing closer to customers, win more business and increase customer satisfaction.

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