The supply shortage that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has seen interesting developments occur in the world of manufacturing. Businesses are moving more quickly to digital production technologies in order to become more agile and resilient in the face of supply chain disruptions.
The latest demonstrator of this trend is Project DIAMOnD, an initiative meant to speed up the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies among Michigan manufacturers. The program has just seen Markforged dispatch its first round of 3D printers to over 200 businesses, who will be using them to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) when necessary, as well as parts for their manufacturing operations.
Project DIAMOnD was launched by a non-profit organization called Automation Alley, a World Economic Forum Advanced Manufacturing Hub (AMHUB) and Industry 4.0 knowledge center funded by Michigan’s Oakland and Macomb counties. The organization is focused on public-private partnerships that link businesses to education and government bodies to adopt new manufacturing technologies.
In the case of Project DIAMOnD, small and mid-sized manufacturers in the state will be printing PPE via Markforged’s Digital Forge. Automation Alley will operate a centralized, blockchain-enabled cloud that manages each printer. The organization suggests that “[t]he project is poised to become the world’s largest emergency response network for printing physical objects on demand.”
In addition to PPE, the businesses will be able to print parts for their own production lines in order to ensure resiliency in the face of supply chain disruptions. Funded by an Oakland and Macomb County grant, 300 applicants are able to receive Markforged 3D printers. Those that have obtained the systems so far include such Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers as diecast mold and equipment provider HERCO Group, automation company Accufacture, and Custom Valve Concepts (CVC), a liquid and gas product maker for brands that include Nestlé, GE, Citgo and PepsiCo.
CVC will use its 3D printer to both produce PPE and tools and fixtures: “Additive manufacturing was always on our minds,” said Michael Tor, Associate Engineer at CVC. “After receiving this grant and talking with Markforged, that’s when our eyes just started opening up. I used to look at the local news and see these amazing stories of everyday people, not necessarily engineers, helping out. Now we get to do the same. This project provides an avenue for Custom Valve Concepts to utilize its abilities to help those in our community and has helped kickstart our goal of introducing additive manufacturing into the company.”
Public-private partnerships always strike me as an elaborate method for allowing businesses to use public funds to pursue their own interests. Though digital manufacturing may make it possible to more readily deal with supply chain shortages, it’s not necessarily clear that public funds need to be directed toward private interests in this way. For instance, CVC has as its customers some of the biggest companies in the world, including BP and Exxon. While we don’t know its exact financial status, one wonders if CVC could have simply justified the purchase of a 3D printer without funds from Michigan counties.
What I have often seen in 3D printing public-private partnerships is a government body determining what a specific problem is, such as re-shoring manufacturing to the U.S., and then using public funds to facilitate private businesses to address those problems. During emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, business interests are able to make these deals happen more quickly, potentially obtaining new equipment, such as 3D printers, or funds with the emergency as a justification. In the case of Project DIAMOnD, the manufacturing of PPE is described as something that will happen as requested, but that the program is also about tackling the supply chain issues of the businesses themselves.
A more direct method of solving that issue would be to create a public entity to manufacture things locally. However, because the U.S. lacks a solid infrastructure for public ownership of manufacturing operations, there may be no quick method for a public institution to perform the digital manufacturing themselves. Therefore, if the state of Michigan aims to address supply chain disruptions related to the current emergency, it would have to do so through existing manufacturing bodies, which are all privately owned.
Regardless, this does demonstrate the possibilities that 3D printing offers for addressing these types of supply chain disruptions. It also showcases how the pandemic is being used to push through Industry 4.0 initiatives when normal circumstances might not have dictated such a push.
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