The COVID-19 virus has affected the world in an unprecedented way. The pandemic has shown us just how deeply a crisis can disrupt societies and economies that are now so interconnected on a global level. This has been especially true in the case of supply chains and production. But the situation is also creating some valuable learnings, an important one being that by embracing alternative technologies to innovate, and with industry collaboration, we can make our supply chains more reliable, cost-effective and efficient – not just now but for the longer-term.
In previous decades, medical technology as well as countless other industries, have shifted the production of components or entire products to locations with lower labour costs, far away from their target market. Unfortunately, there are cases, including the current pandemic, where the vulnerability of these fully optimised supply chains have been laid bare – leading to supply bottlenecks, weakened domestic markets and lessened autonomy.
3D printing against COVID-19
When COVID-19 infection rates climbed drastically worldwide at the start of 2020, the potential of 3D printing to rapidly manufacture parts was quickly leveraged by many, in order to produce medical equipment and machinery. Numerous countries and businesses have turned to local manufacturers and industrial 3D printing to help address the surge in demand for new products such as PPE (face shields and eye protectors), ventilators and nasal swabs.
As an example, in Europe and North America, a consortium of companies formed in March 2020, working alongside the Canadian and Spanish health authorities, to produce the first 3D-printed nasal swab certified by a government agency. It is now working with the Spanish government to produce hundreds of thousands medical nasal swabs for use in COVID-19 test kits, as well as helping North American hospitals and public health systems to increase production capabilities and fight against stock outs.
How distributed production works
AM technology increases the flexibility of manufacturing and production processes, reducing both our dependence on global supply chains and logistics expenses. During times of uncertainty, when manufacturers are under increasing pressure to deliver essential products and services, the fact that 3D printing can pivot to happen when and where it’s needed most, is hugely advantageous.
Industrial 3D printing allows for demand-driven production, streamlines processes, and makes the supply chain more robust. Combining industrial 3D printing with digital manufacturing structures that link machines and production control software systems in globally dispersed locations results in maximum transparency thanks to real-time reporting, flexibility, and performance. There are many benefits to this approach, including increased transparency of supply chains, adapting products to individual or regional tastes and reduced product carbon footprint.
Key industries and trends
Although we have seen many prominent examples of 3D printing in a medical context in 2020, the technology is by no means limited to that field, with AM being used across industries from aerospace to mobility and consumer goods. It will not replace the entire manufacturing landscape, but it complements where innovations would otherwise go astray. For the near and mid-term future I anticipate the following areas where distributed production and AM will make a real impact:
Aerospace – While aircraft are grounded due to the pandemic, 3D printing is being employed for maintenance and cabin interior renovation. Airlines and maintenance organisations (MROs) can also use AM to develop new value propositions for those who still fly through new, personalised experiences for passengers, and to enable increased cargo volumes and new cargo delivery mechanisms. Hygiene-enablers and smart, locally manufactured 3D parts can be also be an avenue for success with cheaper spare parts, lower part weight and better designs.
Consumer Goods – Product personalisation has been more than just a trend for a while now, and 3D printing is being used more and more in this field. As well as offering greater comfort to customers, custom products open completely new possibilities for fashion customisation. Because AM is a fully digital process, designs can be put together using scans of the sole of the foot or head, then transformed into custom-fitting products by industrial 3D printing. Combining this with distributed production and production on demand enables companies to vary products and manufacture locally based on demand.
Sustainability – This area has rightly become more and more important for companies and end customers across all industries – something the benefits of 3D printing and will play a huge role in going forward. Most current manufacturing techniques are restrictive, wasteful, and quite inefficient. At EOS, we are convinced that advanced manufacturing can overcome these limitations, from its ability to produce locally and on-demand, reduce scrap waste compared to conventional manufacturing.
Digital Warehousing – As product variety and complexity continue to increase, the spare parts businesses has been severely impacted. Increases in supply chain cost and complexity for planning, production, stocking and delivery will demand a shift away from physical parts and towards digital products and services. This shift, with the application of additive manufacturing will drive new business models designed to solve upcoming supply chain threats such as single part obsolescence, systematic supply chain shortages and high inventory costs.
Not a band-aid, but a sustainable solution
Almost forced to innovate due to COVID-19, the world has suddenly found itself embracing distributed manufacturing. Now things are on the move, there is the potential to advance manufacturing supply structures for the better, if AM is utilised properly.
Industrial 3D printing and decentralised production can transform the way we design, create, distribute, and repair products on a grand scale. It is both a short-term and long-term solution that not only provides immediate access to critical supplies, on-demand, but also offers enormous flexibility and faster delivery of goods because they are being made closer to the end user. Nearly every industry sector can benefit from the innovation it facilitates, helping industries to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains across the globe in 2021 and beyond.
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