Recently, 3D printing has been intensely examined by governments, military planners, and large corporations. The focus is on enhancing supply chain resilience, especially in light of potential disruptions such as political shocks and natural disasters. As concerns about boycotts, weather-related destruction, and war grow, interest in 3D printing has intensified. It also helps that ¨Made in the USA¨ resonates well with the voting public.
3D printing offers a compelling solution. The crinkly, creaky global supply chain with tendrils stretching around the world is vulnerable to all manner of interruptions. By contrast, a domestically-managed 3D printing approach can make supply chains impervious to overseas disasters. Geopolitical divisions are also contributing to this trend, as democracies increasingly wish to become independent from dictatorships that may be acting against international interests.
All Roads Lead to Additive
3D printing is being looked to as a vital resource not only for vehicles but especially for manufacturing and improving military and space equipment like missiles, aircraft, drones, munitions, and stopgap weapons, as well as manufacturing aids and tooling. A lot of black money, defense, and intelligence budgets are being switched to this technology. Moreover, investments in 3D printing are relatively minor compared to the tens of billions required for national microchip manufacturing.
Companies are being encouraged to embrace additive manufacturing. The investment, in many cases, could be highly advantageous. 3D printing offers the ability to iterate quickly, create unique parts for unique scenarios, and establish a technological edge that could translate into a permanent advantage.
Pflugerville or Berlin?
Cities like Singapore, Dubai, Berlin, and Pflugerville are attempting to stimulate additive production and startups within their borders, aiming to become the Silicon Valley of 3D Printing for their respective nations. Though this seems tempting for national goals, city-based initiatives may be less certain.
National Interest or Nationalist?
The funding of defense contractors through 3D printing doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. However, governments can exert control over these contractors, dictating who they do business with or what they export. 3D printing allows for more cost-effective production and tailored systems to meet specific needs. Some knowledge will seep out, of course, and may end up in procedures and programs shared with other countries, but, on the whole, national governments can control exportation through mechanisms like ITAR in ways that the city of Pflugerville or the state of Alabama cannot.
Modularity and Mobility
One of 3D printing’s central advantages is its modularity. A series of interconnected units can produce an item, usually in a batch-based system, allowing for a low initial investment and quick expansion. There’s some conveyancing equipment involved, but, all in all, the system is modular. If you want to produce more just add more units. AM does need a solid, flat floor, along with HVAC, industrial gases, and more, but the move-in time is surprisingly swift. Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printer users don’t have to deal with injection molding machines weighing tens of tonnes or navigate a complex labyrinth of processes and machines that stretch through hall after hall of factory floor. In the world of 3D printing, one firm can craft the parts while another nearby assembles the equipment; one company produces the gas while another handles the material. The process is more compact and less dependent on location than industries like automotive manufacturing.
3D Printing is Not Cars
When China encourages car companies to establish operations in specific areas, it’s a strategic decision. Car manufacturing requires a substantial workforce and a multitude of suppliers. Various factories provide a wide array of components, employing highly specialized engineers in areas such as tooling, manufacturing, polymer disciplines, material science, and process engineering. These roles often either migrate or are recreated in the new location. Specialized companies, dealing in everything from seating and wire harnesses to windows, factory fire safety, robot arm programming, and automotive paint, must relocate to the new area or risk obsolescence. Consequently, the automotive supply chain has become notably entrenched. With increasing automation, China may become the final frontier for car production. If robots replace all human labor and local energy costs remain low, there may never again be an incentive for the industry to relocate, regardless of potential savings in labor costs or other inducements elsewhere.
We May Just Leave As Quickly as We Came
Compare this situation to 3D printing. In this field, human resources are essential, and keeping them satisfied is a priority. Many may work remotely from places like Bali or Bargen, depending on their preferences. The few specialized manufacturing operations staff, however, must be on site, but their rarity means that they might be incentivized to relocate if needed. The flexibility of 3D printing operations allows for a quick move to a new city, state, or country within weeks. While this adaptability may enhance a government’s resilience, local authorities might not see a return on investment. The very agility that makes 3D Printing appealing means that a company could easily relocate to a more favorable location.
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