Potential Scenarios for 3D Printing Supply Chain Resilience


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Recently on the 3DPod, we discussed supply chain resilience with HP’s Ramon Pastor. He mentioned that he believes that cost-driven supply chains are a thing of the past. He said that, previously, companies thought that, if they had two suppliers for a part or factories in different countries, this was enough to ensure resilience.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all learned that this is not enough. A genuinely global crisis has meant that both of a company’s supplier factories separated by oceans can be closed by the same event. What’s more, local events like a gigantic port fire in Dalian or a longshoreman strike in California can have knock-on effects that reverberate throughout the globe. At the same time, Pastor contended that we may have just experienced an unprecedented period of stability that may, in fact, be ending, bringing more geopolitical risk.

The just-in-time supply chains spanning the world are smooth like glass. We have a system that works very well when it works very well. At the same time, this smooth system is also very brittle. In the face of a shock, it sputters and shatters. Enter the “resilient supply chain”. Rough and tumble and tough, this one can take a few punches and keep on rolling. Many 3D printing companies have leapt on the possibility of a resilient supply chain and touted their potentially key roles in bringing this about. But, what role can additive firms realistically play in a resilient supply chain?

3D Print All of the Things.

This would, of course, be an incredibly beneficial solution for us as an industry. But in terms of cost-effectiveness, we are far from being cost-competitive for most parts, especially those bigger than a breadbox. For many things, porosity or material limitations in 3D printing would preclude our use for these parts. The cost of printing large components, in terms of money and especially time, would be problematic, as well. At the moment, 1 meter by 1 meter parts are simply not possible with most systems and technologies in 3D printing. Even 50 cm by 50 cm by 50 cm parts could take days or weeks to print, depending on the technology.

We wouldn’t get a resilient supply chain if we wholesale switched to printing millions of large parts since we would take too long to print them all. Even if we could magically reduce the material cost to that of mass production materials, make systems significantly faster (say 300%?) and reduced labor cost to next to nothing, it still would take too long to make all of these parts even if we radically increased the number of deployed printers.

Dual Qualification.

Max Bogue and I were very excited about this as an idea, as was Ramon Pastor. What if you could certify key consumables and critical parts both for the relevant mass production method and for 3D printing? You’d have a lot more work to do initially in design for additive manufacturing and all pertinent testing or regulatory approvals, but this would pay dividends in a crisis.

With dual-certified parts, you could produce them with a backup method yourself or through service bureaus should the need arise. This sounds like a sensible solution, but in another 3DPod episode, consultant Phil Reeves doubted that companies could and would burden themselves with the cost for many parts. I’d agree with him here, and especially given how 3D printed parts behave very differently than those made with CNC and molding, it would be non-obvious how to eliminate differences in wear and tear or materials in the long run. For this to work, there would have to be software and services that make it easy and inexpensive to select, test, and approve parts that could realistically be made with 3D printing.

Whole parts or assemblies some of the time.

In this scenario, we would dual qualify only those very critical consumables or parts that would cause products to fail or production to suddenly grind to a halt. So, in this case, we’d spend an extra $10,000 on that one part and be able to replace it not for $3 but with 3D printing for $75, but we wouldn’t mind. A failure or unavailability of that part would be so critical as to have our business grind to a halt.

We’d have to pick, choose and think our way through many parts, but if we could identify show-stopping parts and cherry-pick only their dual-use qualification and production then it would make sense, perhaps through only 3D printing them or by 3D printing them in a crisis. This more limited approach sounds very reasonable, but how many companies have parts that would be replaceable through 3D printing now that would fit the business case?

Short Run Molding Supply Chain.

What if you could make reactive injection molds for your top 1,000 spares and consumables? Any other short run molding process could work as well, but the idea would be to have the tooling and a line set up gathering dust in your head office. This line could be used for prototypes, short run versions, customized versions and bridge manufacturing situations. In an emergency, it would also serve as a method for shipping out hundreds of parts in short order when the situation demands it.

Decentralized Manufacturing.

In each country where you are active, a local service partner or your own company will do the manufacturing for you. This would, of course, be a hugely expensive undertaking and unpractical for many parts. Shouldn’t we just work at bringing about this panacea rather than struggle within the current paradigm? Perhaps for oil and gas, this may be a very good idea. It would be nice to have manufacturing jobs in developing countries and parts could immediately be made to ensure that lost production was remedied as soon as possible. If you make some hugely complex one-million-croissants-an-hour machine or similar, it may make sense, as well. For most parts, I really don’t see this happening at scale, however, unless specific services made it easy to design and replace parts.

Switch To Fully Digital.

Be the first in your business to completely switch to digital production, combining a digital supply chain with local decentralized output worldwide. Reap the rewards. If one could be significantly faster to market and reduce fashion risk by not making too much of something or not having enough on hand, it may make sense for some people.

In products like jewelry, for example, it could very well make sense to be the one digital player in an analog world that could respond quicker to trends and shifts in demand. By being more rapid than fast fashion, one could potentially offset higher production cost and a huge initial investment to become the most on-trend, least-waste player in the market.

I also call this the Strategic Catnip Scenario. It would be so beautiful wouldn’t it? I could imagine this working if the entire product were small, such as headphones, iPhone cases, jewelry and sunglasses, eventually. But when can we do that, what investment would keep all but the boldest in taking this leap.

On the whole, we can see several paths that could lead to more 3D printing in your supply chain and more resilience. For some products, long term advantage can be had from 3D printing these parts or entire products directly. On the whole however we have to conclude that for the moment 3D printing is promising but not a panacea.

Images Creative Commons Attribution: Henry Burrows, Mark Gunn, Rob Oo and Jinx.

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