The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will have a dramatic effect on everything, including additive manufacturing. And yet this crisis—like all crises—could also become an opportunity for some AM companies.
The first impact has been an industry show cancellation. It started with Asian shows and gradually spread to all shows in Europe and eventually the US. AMUG’s long-overdue decision to cancel came in March, AM Forum Berlin held the conference in spite of growing concerns and Rapid has been postponed until 2021.
It was actually quite clear from the beginning, to anyone who wanted to look at the data, that the extremely high contagiousness and–paradoxically–the fact that most carriers are asymptomatic, make this virus impossible to control with any measure other than a complete shut-down of all social and economic activities. This means that in order to keep the outbreak under control, at least to avoid the collapse of the healthcare system, its impact needs to be spread out over time. This could mean shutting down all unnecessary economic activity for months or even years. Which is clearly unsustainable, especially for capitalist Western economies.
That’s how China has dealt successfully with it, that’s how Italy is now trying to deal with it. Other countries, where the infection manifested later (whether for a lower number of actual infections or simply for a lower number of tests conducted) could have more easily limited the impact of the virus by immediately blocking all social contacts earlier. They chose instead to pretend this was an issue confined to single nations and not a global one. Finally, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Many still have not yet realized the gravity of the situation.
No matter how you look at it – with maybe the only exception being the current reduction in CO2 emissions – this viral pandemic is not going to be good for the world. Not for any industry and not for AM. At least in the short term, that is. For the longer term, there may be reasons to be a little more optimistic. First, once this will be contained or dealt with in some way, the industry will rebound. And markets quickly forget about how things were before: all they focus on is whether, in a particular moment, we are growing or not.
As bad as this might get, COVID-19 is not the apocalypse. Not in medical terms at least. According to currently available stats, at most 2-3% of the infected die, which may still mean tens of millions of people in a worst-case scenario, but not billions. There will be a pre- and post-coronavirus world but there will still be a world. And a manufacturing industry. Hopefully, the devastating financial and economic crisis that has been set off by this pandemic will not lead to more dramatic turns of events. Assuming that it will not and that a relatively sound global economy will spring back up after the pandemic has run its course, the new economy that will rise will likely be more efficient, more streamlined, more distributed and more sustainable. For those AM companies that will be able to withstand the upcoming economic turmoil – and let’s be clear: many startups in AM will not – additive manufacturing can eventually play a part in any of these.
In the post-pandemic world, we will probably (hopefully) produce less but better, more on location and in a much more automated fashion. Automated, distributed and increasingly digitalized factories will become necessary in the upcoming months and maybe years. Depending on when and if a vaccine will be found, we are going to have to limit our human interactions, our movements and our interpersonal contacts. Companies will have no choice but to turn to AM in more cases.
For example, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the oil & gas industry began to struggle due to crashing oil prices, that’s when many segment leaders started to invest significantly in AM as a means to streamline operations and cut costs. Until that point, they had no need for it. More immediately, the private mobility industry–all the way from personal mobility devices to drones and private jets–has already seen an uptake and these are among the largest and first adopters of AM.
More importantly, though, the crisis is going to show the benefits of alternate supply chains. That’s exactly where AM offers the most advantages and some US-based firms have been among the fastest–much faster than the US administration–to react to the rapidly evolving scenario. Large 3D printing service Forecast 3D–which, as the name implies, was built around the need to expect the unexpected–produces exclusively in the US and reported that their capacity has not been impacted by this virus. Making plans in case of future pandemics, disasters and other risks to supply chains mean ensuring the availability of local suppliers ready for quick-turn manufacturing needs. Likewise AP&C, the GE-owned, Canada-based manufacturer of AM metal powders, recently pointed out how understanding and activating alternate sources of supply can protect supply chain operations and how production using additive manufacturing can now mitigate risk in a number of industries, even beyond traditional aerospace and medical adopters.
Deloitte went as far as forecasting that “COVID-19 [could] be the black swan event that finally forces many companies, and entire industries, to rethink and transform their global supply chain model”. In fact, the virus has already exposed the vulnerabilities of many organizations, especially those who have a high dependence on China’s dominant role as the “world’s factory”. More than 200 of the Fortune Global 500 firms have a presence in Hubei,, the highly industrialized province where the outbreak originated, and which has been the hardest hit. Companies whose supply chain is reliant on Tier 1 (direct) or Tier 2 (secondary) suppliers in China are likely to experience significant disruption, even if, according to the most optimistic reports, conditions will approach normalcy in China by April.
Deloitte does not yet take into consideration that the US is probably going to be much more dramatically affected by COVID-19 than China has been. The bottom line is that new supply chain technologies – such as additive manufacturing – are emerging that cover the end-to-end supply chain, and support companies’ ability to resist such shocks.
In terms of the communication and reporting of additive manufacturing products and services to meet this potential growth in demand, fully digital, online resources will play an important role in light of the ongoing cancellation of most trade shows. Day to day activity at 3dpbm has remained largely undisrupted, even as some members of our team are located at the European epicentres of the outbreak. As long as the additive manufacturing industry will continue to produce, we will continue to report on it.