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Is 3D Printing the missing link in your supply chain?

Dave Veisz, MakerBot’s VP Engineering, examines what learnings we can take from recent events to help build more resilient supply chains in the future.

Dave Veisz, MakerBot’s VP of Engineering
|Aug 9|magazine17 min read

It is no exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. From a personal perspective, it has impacted on our ability to move about freely, and to see family and friends. It has changed the way we work, and the way we relax. 

In the world of supply and demand, its impact has been every bit as shocking. An efficient supply chain is integral to the success of any business – managing it correctly speeds up the delivery of products, drives down costs and prevents delays that can be costly both to a company’s bottom line and its reputation. No matter what industry or country a business operates in, supply chain management should always be at the forefront of its vision, finding new ways to obtain products at a lower price and reducing those all-important lead times. 

The ongoing drive for profitability and competitive advantage has led companies to increasingly adopt ‘just-in-time’ supply chain models, eliminating the need to maintain vast and costly inventories. As a result, businesses can produce products faster, more cheaply and more efficiently than ever before. But this increased productivity has come at a cost. The process of paring back operations and stripping out all but the most essential redundancy has left supply chains vulnerable to supply interruptions – as was clearly, and dramatically, highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cost of inaction

It could be argued that the devastating impact that COVID-19 had on supply chains came as no surprise – after all, it has always been known that a ‘once in a lifetime’ event such as COVID-19 could happen and that today’s lean supply chains would struggle to cope. What was perhaps unexpected, however, is the speed at which events unfolded. The automotive industry is a prime example, with reports that some manufacturers were forced to shut down production within weeks of the outbreak due to a combination of parts shortages and steps taken to ensure workers’ safety. The fact is that in today’s leaner global supply chains the lack of a single part can cause a whole production line to, quite literally, grind to a halt. 

As we start to emerge from the current crisis, albeit slowly, it is crucial to consider what we have learned from the situation and, more importantly, how we can leverage this knowledge to build more resilient supply chains in the future – while still ensuring they remain as profitable and flexible as possible. 

Planning for the future

One likely outcome is that manufacturers will increasingly explore ways to work with suppliers closer to home. Supply chains are globalized, even for small to medium sized businesses. This additional complexity to supply chains leaves them more susceptible to disruption in times such as these. The other factor is that, as previously mentioned, ‘just-in-time’ supply chains are great for lean manufacturing, but ‘just-in-time’ does mean that there are fewer buffers to safeguard against disruption. Even a single supplier closure can have a huge trickle-down effect that can shut down assembly lines. 

Ideally, businesses should develop plans to enable them to source essential parts from different regions (both local and overseas). However, this can be tough to do for lower volumes. This is where newer technologies, such as 3D printing and quick turn PCBA manufacturing, enter the frame, as they can be a viable backup solution for many components.

Additive manufacturing comes to the fore

Even before COVID-19, many companies were already using additive manufacturing for spare part production. These include major players in the defence and rail industries where there are high barriers for approval, as well as in aerospace for maintenance and repair. Additive manufacturing eliminates the need for expensive tooling, enabling designers to print low-volume production parts on demand to the exact specification and in the exact numbers required – reducing wait time and safeguarding against external disruptions. Using digital inventories of spare parts, manufacturers can deploy a decentralized production model by 3D printing digital part files directly at the site where it is needed. The ability to print parts on demand in this way can significantly reduce companies’ inventory burden – which, as we have already established, is key to driving down supply chain costs. 

Changing the mindset

Despite the obvious benefits offered by additive manufacturing, we often find a reluctance from companies to fully embrace the technology. Organizations may prefer to remain in their comfort zone rather than taking on new opportunities, despite the fact they can prove highly beneficial in the long run. This is usually for a number of reasons, including cost, accessibility or just a general reluctance to alter business operations. Companies might already be successful but should still question the reliability and sustainability of what they are doing, posing themselves the question – could we be even better?

Lack of knowledge about additive manufacturing is another common obstacle we encounter. As a leading 3D printer manufacturer, it is our responsibility to help bridge the chasm that still exists, providing guidance on the appropriate technology and its capabilities to ensure businesses are able to make an informed choice. 

The first question to ask is – what do I want to print and is it feasible to do so using additive manufacturing? There are a variety of different printers available on the market, all with different material capabilities, so the likelihood is that designers and engineers will be able to find a printer that is tailored to their needs. 3D printers with open-platform capabilities are useful to designers looking to have a lot of flexibility with their material selection.

Secondly, who will be operating the printer? Large industrial printers will require employees to have necessary training to acquire the skills in order to run the machine. Industrial-grade desktop printers are a useful alternative, as they are easier to use, require less training and can be set up and printing parts almost straight away. 

Location is also a key factor to consider. Where will you keep the 3D printer if you were to buy one? Location is always a focal point for any business buying new technology and it is no different with 3D printers. Using a desktop printer allows you to place the device wherever there is space, and ultimately means there is more room for multiple printers if the output of your business requires it.

Finally, how quickly do you need the parts? Service bureaus provide a useful resource for businesses who do not want to purchase a 3D printer outright, but they do come with their limitations. These types of services have lower up-front investment, but flexibility is lost in not being able to produce the part as quickly as if a business purchased its own 3D printer. And, of course, depending on the location of the bureau, supply can be impacted by unforeseen events, such as the global one we are all facing today. Lastly, piece price is higher, and it is usually possible to get a full return on investment for an in-house printer after just a few service bureau orders.

Creating a blueprint for the future

Whatever option you choose – or even if you conclude that additive manufacturing is not right for your organization at the moment – it is important to explore the possibilities that the technology offers. COVID-19 has all too clearly revealed the fragility of today’s supply chain models, but it has also shown the way forward. It is clear that additive manufacturing has a crucial role to play in creating more resilient and responsive supply chains, but it is only part of the picture. If the pandemic has done one thing, hopefully it has highlighted the need for companies to open their minds to exploring new technologies and the positive impact they can have. Businesses never stop asking themself the question – could our supply chain be even better? 

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