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How Will 3D Printing Impact Supply Chain Resilience in 2024?

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At the end of 2023, the Biden Administration announced the development of a task force dedicated to supply chain resilience. A month later, the Department of Defense (DoD) published its first ever National Defense Industrial Strategy, laying out its objectives related to its supply chain. According to the “Additive Manufacturing for Military and Defense” report from Additive Manufacturing (AM) Research, the DoD alone was on track to spend $300 million directly on AM in 2023.

These efforts signify the institutional foundations for the next era of manufacturing—that is, Industry 4.0. Under the umbrella of supply chain resilience (or vice versa) falls the larger issue of sustainability. While we’d like to think that corporate and national efforts are being driven by altruism, the fact of the matter is that resource depletion, global warming, and the myriad other ecological crises unfolding are also logistics issues. After all, if there’s not enough of a resource to make a product or enough fossil fuel to ship that product overseas, the associated supply chain isn’t really resilient.

For that reason, the two issues of logistics networks and ecology are closely interrelated. AM may not be a panacea for addressing them, but the ability to efficiently produce optimized parts closest to the point of use will likely play a key role in tackling those problems if any semblance of an industrial society is to be maintained. To understand how 3D printing will do its part in supporting supply chains sustainably, we turned to two companies that are experts in the field, HP and Replique.

Supply Chain Resilience with HP

Compared to mainstays like 3D Systems and Stratasys, HP is comparatively new to the AM market, having launched its first system in 2016. However, it quickly conquered the polymer 3D printing market with its Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology. The more recently released MetalJet process hasn’t had the same time to make inroads, but it could very well follow in the footsteps of its predecessor.

This established record in the additive space, along with the tech giant’s existing legacy, place it in an ideal position for building the digital manufacturing infrastructure necessary for supporting logistics networks. Dave Prezzano, Global Head of Go-to-Market at HP Personalization and 3D Printing, reflected on how recent events have impacted HP’s own business with regard to AM.

“COVID-19 exposed the weakness of traditional manufacturing methods against supply chain disruptions. This experience has led to a greater focus on boosting supply chain resilience which is driving a massive transformation in how businesses approach all aspects of the production process, from design to mass production,” Prezzano said. “As such, revolutionary Industry 4.0 technologies, notably 3D printing, are rising in popularity as a holistic tool that can be implemented into numerous stages of the production process. This refocus on transferring operations to those that can withstand supply chain volatility has pushed more businesses across a range of industries towards 3D printing as its benefits over traditional tools are revealed. As such, we have had the opportunity to work and partner with companies across various industries to bring new, innovative 3D printing applications to life.”

Together with GKN Additive (Forecast 3D), John Deere transforms its agricultural machinery supply chain by manufacturing HP Metal Jet printed valves, achieving substantial productivity gains, environmental benefits, and high-quality part functionality even in extreme weather conditions.

As weaknesses in manufacturing logistics networks were exposed, corporations and governments have begun to seriously address these cracks. The Biden Administration, in particular, has demonstrated a strong commitment to the issue.

“The White House National Strategy for Advanced Manufacturing focuses on the need to revive the manufacturing sector, build strong U.S. supply chains, invest in research and development (R&D), and empower the workforce,” Prezzano explained. “This strategy outlines a vision for the U.S. to lead in advanced manufacturing — to grow the economy, create jobs, enhance environmental sustainability, address climate change, ensure national security and improve health care. 3D printing has the potential to make a massive, positive impact on the global manufacturing ecosystem, and with national support, we are driven to continue serving as champions of innovation, bringing technology and manufacturing together as one.”

Central to the problems of global supply chains, however, is the fact that they are global. Modern manufacturing relies on the cooperation of players around the world, which means that solutions to those issues also requires international support. In the case of companies like HP, which operates on nearly every continent, it’s possible to leverage activities on multiple nations to establish stronger production networks.

HP’s 3D printing solutions revolutionize the supply chain by facilitating seamless serial production and mass personalization with best-in-class speed and cost, and new features that enable better control job to job, and printer to printer.

“The passage of the CHIPS Act, among other measures, demonstrates the commitment by the U.S. to not only prioritize supply chain resiliency, but also openness to leveraging technology to achieve new possibilities in the world of manufacturing. HP’s Personalization and 3D Printing business works with other countries to collaborate on these efforts as well as discover new ways to improve the resiliency of our global supply chain. We are seeing efforts around the world to change the way we develop and produce goods, from 3D printing to AI and other non-technical tools and practices,” Prezzano said. “As more global businesses prioritize tools that enable supply chain resilience, we expect to see more countries adopt a supply chain-first approach, and, as a result, greater utilization of Industry 4.0 technologies that enable such workflows.” 

Sustainable Supply Chains

As a digital inventory startup, Replique may not have the clout that HP has, but, as a spinout of chemical giant BASF, it may have access to some of that clout. Moreover, it has the expertise to understand the role of manufacturing in global logistics networks, as well as how sustainable those networks are when it comes to production. Given its focus on supply chain digitization and spare parts, the company is uniquely positioned to understand the picture much more holistically.

“At Replique, we’re driving sustainability by digitizing inventories and producing on-demand, ensuring parts are available in the right place and in the right quantity exactly when they are needed,” Dr. Henrike Wonneberger, COO and Co-Founder of Replique, told 3DPrint.com. “We enable this via our digital inventory platform and a connected global network of 3D printing service bureaus, that brings production closer to demand points. We believe that this digital production approach is crucial to allow highest resource efficiency, by sharing data and enabling high transparency throughout the whole value chain.

Careful qualification of materials and processes enables the serial production of 3D printed parts, such as for this door stopper, the first 3D printed metal part within an Alstom train produced via the 3D printing platform of Replique.

By limiting the physical stock that a business relies on, Replique is able to simultaneously address supply chain resilience and sustainability goals. Rather than overproduce goods, a company can simply print a spare part when necessary and closest to the point of need, thus reducing its ecological footprint with regard to manufacturing and transportation at the same time.

“We are tackling the widespread problem of overhead stock by digitizing inventories. This eliminates the need to scrap obsolete parts, which make up 20-30% of the total stock,” Wonneberger explained. “Moreover, our decentral manufacturing network enables companies to produce parts anywhere worldwide, decreasing transportation routes and related emissions by up to 90%. Using an existing and qualified network further enables companies to leverage 3D printing without having to maintain their own printers on-site, leading to an optimized overall production capacity.”

The ability to digitize inventory extends beyond large manufacturers so that even smaller businesses can offer 3D printable spares that would have been cost-prohibitive with conventional production techniques. This, in turn, extends the life of items made by boutique manufacturers, according to Wonneberger.

“We enable companies to provide spare parts for machines and consumer goods when traditional methods fall short. The on-demand availability enables product repairs throughout their lifetime. Our customer Siena Garden, for example, can now offer spare parts for garden furniture, which used to be too costly in low volumes. This meets a significant and growing consumer demand, reflected in the ‘Right to Repair’ movement and the resulting regulations,” the executive said.

Foot caps like these enable users to repair garden chairs and keep them in their best condition. Original foot cap on the left, 3D printed redesigned foot cap on the right. Image courtesy of Replique.

The Future for AM in Sustainable Supply Chains

Obviously, 3D printing is still far from representing a true and sustainable solution to supply chain disruptions. However, as the industry and its technology evolve, it will be increasingly able to solve the problems established by global manufacturing.

For Replique, this means improving its production network to “further shorten the ‘last miles’ and thereby reduce the environmental impact of transportation.” The “last mile” issue is one of the key factors in actually achieving a more responsive and effective route between produce and user. The company is also actively working on new sustainable materials, such as printable pellets from recycled fishing nets. While this is clearly an ecologically beneficial material option, recycling will improve a continually greater role in manufacturing as a means of avoiding supply chain disruptions related to resource depletion. Just think of the numerous materials that suddenly became hard to come by after the war began in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, HP will be aiming to achieve the goal of distributed manufacturing in its own way. Along with that will come further automation meant to decrease the overall cost of 3D printing to make it a more viable and scalable technology for manufacturing.

“The belief that 3D printing is the way to make localized, on-demand production a reality for more businesses and industries in the next decade is deeply ingrained into HP’s long-term business and product strategies,” Prezzano said. “In addition to last year’s advanced automation capabilities announcements for 3D polymers and metals, HP is continuously iterating its software, hardware, and firmware to make the concept of ‘lights out’ factories a reality. Committed to showing how 3D printing can integrate with other high-performance technologies like Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs), HP’s goal is to continue to lower the total cost of ownership of 3D printing technology and lean into its complementary nature in order to add additional layers of productivity benefits in industry 4.0 as customers scale AM commercial production in the U.S.

As we look towards the future, it’s clear that the sustainability of additive manufacturing will hinge not just on technological advancements but also on a comprehensive understanding of the environmental impact at each stage of the AM process. The industry’s approach to sustainability is evolving, with a growing emphasis on the need for collaborative efforts and transparency across the entire production cycle. This is where insights from industry leaders become invaluable. Replique’s Dr. Wonneberger offers a perspective that encapsulates this evolving landscape of AM. She states:

“In order to enhance the sustainability of additive manufacturing, transparency and visibility of sustainability data will play an increasingly important role. To achieve this goal, collaboration within the industry is crucial. Providing sustainability data from everyone involved in the AM process -from materials to printer production to post-processing-can be achieved through digital connectivity. Centralizing this data on a single platform enables transparency and improvements in terms of environmental impact on a part-by-part basis. In addition, ongoing research into eco-friendly materials, embracing recycling processes, and promoting on-demand manufacturing practices are crucial steps. Government incentives and industry standards supporting environmentally conscious practices in additive manufacturing can accelerate the transition to a more sustainable future. Finally, promoting the concept of shared printing resources, like centralized print service bureaus, can significantly optimize production capacity, reduce energy consumption, and minimize waste.”

This insight from Dr. Wonneberger underlines the importance of a holistic approach to sustainability in additive manufacturing, where each element of the production chain is considered for its environmental impact. As we advance, the integration of these principles into the core of AM practices will be pivotal in shaping a sustainable and resilient future for the supply chain.

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