The COVID-19 crisis is going to cause a massive shock to global manufacturing, pretending it isn’t so is like pretending there is no elephant in the room. While crises often accelerate technological trends with positive long term effects, a slowdown in many segments of manufacturing will be inevitable in the immediate future. As a trade media for the AM industry we want to understand if and how additive manufacturing can help manufacturers overcome these short term challenges. So we sat down with Markus Glasser, Senior Vice President of EOS for the EMEA region. This is EOS’s largest region and includes Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Mr. Glasser has been building EOS’ AM business for more than 20 years so there are few people in the world that can help us better understand what is going to happen to the AM industry over the next 20.
One of the first topics we discuss is the idea of an “exit strategy”. This term usually indicates a strategy to get away from bad business. In this case, the “bad business” is COVID-19 and the exit strategy refers to how companies can take the lessons learned during the pandemic to address the way global manufacturing will change. And it will change very much.
Exiting a crisis
“Supply chain disruption was the first issue that emerged during the crisis,” says Glasser. “Today’s manufacturing industry is based on importing large quantities of lower-cost parts, for example from China. But border and travel restrictions – along with asynchronous and unpredictable product demand trends – caused delivery delays for many key parts. There are two ways manufacturers can address such a situation in the future. One is to build bigger stocks. This would enable them to survive for maybe a period of six weeks instead of just two, but also drives up the cost of warehousing. The other way is to turn to digital stocks and 3D printing spare parts on demand. This eliminates warehouse costs, allowing them to survive ‘indefinitely’ even in case of a broken supply chain.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic another issue emerged. With aerospace and automotive coming to a standstill, manufacturers rushed to modify their production lines in order to address rapidly shifting demands. Those with 3D printing capabilities were able to immediately commence the production of new parts. Mr. Glasser confirms: “AM companies were able to immediately identify face shield holders as one of the urgently needed parts that could be 3D printed easily. Firms in Europe and the Middle East began producing them by the thousands. And this helped to protect a lot of people, including many medical professionals, against the virus.”
For example, in the UK, a call for 100,000 face shields occurred, which meant as many as 20,000 units per week. To meet demand, UK-based AM service 3T – which is part of the EOS Ecosystem – cooperated with other AM service providers, including firms from Germany and other Nordic regions. Other similar initiatives – also supported by EOS – took place in Italy and the Middle East. Etihad’s MRO supplied several thousand face shields through internal 3D printing capabilities.
And it doesn’t end with the immediate response. 3D printing technology was also used to rapidly develop and produce tool inserts for injection molding machines. This meant that in just four to six weeks injection molding providers were ready to produce these parts by the millions.
Enduring a crisis
During the height of the crisis in Europe, EOS supported the 3D printing effort directly and by building the 3D Against Corona network. “It was a spontaneous reaction. We all wanted to use 3D printing to help save lives,” says Glasser. “Among our partners there was a powder supplier that sponsored the production of face shield holders and ventilator parts by providing free materials. We also provided additional tools and free materials to our clients. Additionally we leveraged our consulting experts at Additive Minds and they worked on the optimization of printable parts that we made available for free on the 3D Against Corona webpage.”
Mr Glasser now shares the hope that the steep rise in 3D printing’s visibility will lead to a greater understanding of the technology, especially at the institutional level. In the future 3D printing may be included by default as an option for strategic emergency response. “We are in contact with politicians on many levels and in many countries,” he tells 3dpbm. “We want them to understand that AM technology should be included among relevant products and machinery, not just for addressing future crises but also to address global supply chain disruption. I think we have a unique chance because everyone now understands the importance of 3D printing. It is no longer seen as a distant technology but as a highly relevant asset for advanced manufacturing and ultimately as something that can save lives.”
In Mr. Glasser’s vision for a pandemic exit strategy, these initiatives demonstrate that AM can be used to address security stocks and on-demand production, beyond emergency supplies, all the way to enabling the creation of new business models for consumer products. Mr. Glasser highlights the Hexr helmet, a mass customized protective cycling headwear. By using an app, the user’s head is scanned and sent to Hexr. The helmet is then digitally customized and manufactured on-demand, at different production hubs. Hexr doesn’t need to build up stock nor make risky forecasts of local demand for each region, which enables the company to withstand future production shocks.
This same business model can be applied to spare parts, including spare parts for medical devices such as ventilator equipment, which experienced shortages and high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to produce spare parts locally reduces machine downtime in just about any segment of manufacturing.
The question remaining is: where is this actually going? Is 3D printing just going to continue to be a technology for filling the gaps or will it also become an option for mass production? There is no clear cut answer, but Mr. Glasser doesn’t make a secret of the fact that the “ultimate goal for 3D printing is to complement but also disrupt injection molding”.
“I would be crazy to say that this will happen tomorrow – he admits. But what we are already seeing today is that 3D printing can help produce better parts. Some manufacturers find significant advantages in producing a complex hinge as a single part instead of five parts that need to be assembled. In this sense, it may already make more sense to have such parts produced locally, with high-quality standards, than to import simpler parts from other areas of the world, even at a lower price per part”.
To further support this evolution, EOS is part of Polyline, a lighthouse project launched for the innovative production of spare and series parts. The project brings together 15 industrial and research partners from Germany to develop a next-generation digitalized production line. This line will be used to produce plastic parts for the automotive industry. The aim is to complement conventional production techniques (e.g. machining, casting, etc.) with AM in the form of high-throughput ¬line production line systems.
The long term goal is to make 3D printing even more competitive and EOS is planning to do this with the new Laser ProFusion technology. This new AM process, based on one million laser diode technology, promises to be competitive with injection molding on batches of one hundred thousand up to a million parts, for certain small size geometries.
Distributed opportunities in aerospace and automation
Before this happens, AM companies will have to get through a “perfect storm”. All industrial segments are suffering but perhaps the most dramatic effects were seen in aviation, which is a major adopter of AM. Airlines are flying at 10% capacity and new aircraft demand is decreasing dramatically. “The general consensus is that it will take 3 to 5 years to get back to pre-COVID-19 levels of air travel,” Glasser estimates. However, this may turn into a major opportunity for polymer additive manufacturing. “Even before the crisis MROs discussed ambitious plans to produce as many as 60% of cabin spare parts using 3D printing within the next years – Mr. Glasser reveals. New COVID-19 safety regulations will require a large number of customizations to the cabin. The use of 3D printing will help airlines save thousands of dollars by replacing only adapters or single components, instead of purchasing entire sets.
This brings us to one of the most delicate issues. Companies in advanced economies may turn to 3D printing to re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets in order to address future supply-chain shocks. But will this help workers or just accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages? Mr. Glasser points out that the idea of 3D printing only bringing about more automation of production is misleading. “I have no doubt that we will have large centralized production in the future,” he explains. “These huge centers will in fact have hundreds of manufacturing machines – both using AM and conventional technologies – run by just a handful of people, trimming down efficiency to the last cent, also by automation. On the other side, though, we are also going to have a larger number of decentralized production hubs, for smaller runs of mass customized products and spare parts. These spare parts will be used to keep the machinery running and reducing downtime. Production will in fact be digital and on-demand, highly leveraging AM – but it may not require that much automation but also rely on human labor.”
These two concepts – manual labor and digital production – are not opposed, in fact they go hand in hand. During the pandemic, EOS conducted the first complete remote installation of an EOS P 110 machine. Human teams interacted digitally to get the system running. All it needed was electricity, an internet connection and technical expertise. The dream of distributed manufacturing is now closer than ever: the pandemic accelerated the very process that will allow manufacturers to overcome it.