As an AM-industry-specific media, we won’t pretend to understand all aspects of current global distribution and traditional supply chains—which is why you should read this article from the NYT that explains such dynamics very clearly. However, what we can say is that manufacturers around the world should, at the very least, look at including some AM production capability—whether through a local AM service provider or by internalizing production—to avoid supply chain disruptions as the ones we are now repeatedly seeing, from COVID-19 to the Ever Given container ship blocking the Suez Canal for weeks.
It was just about a year ago that supply chains around the world found themselves unable to meet the demand for medical supplies—from masks and gloves to respirator machine parts—needed to address the COVID-19 crisis. Those dramatic days saw AM service providers around the world jump in to help meet urgent demand, often succeeding against significant odds. This website in particular was literally stormed by people looking for information on both offering and receiving support, so much so that we had to rapidly develop a giant forum to meet and coordinate all requests and offers from both people and companies of all sizes.
Now history seems to be already repeating itself and, if one instance can be written off as chance, two incidents already indicate a trend. AM providers, which are now increasingly offering digital, on-demand, local production services, have used the example of the Ever Given as a way to promote their capabilities and make manufacturers aware that they can rely on local production for polymer and even for metal parts.
As the NYT article explains, over the past two decades manufacturers around the world have come to depend on “just-in-time” manufacturing. This approach enabled them to reduce the costs related to building up stocks because they could order parts and final products as they needed. However, this method relies on low-cost manufacturing capabilities abroad and depends on global shipments. The pandemic—caused by a tiny micro-organism—and now the Suez Canal incident—caused by something as simple as a gust of wind—continue to make it clear that these lengthy supply chains are simply unsustainable: not just environmentally (which is a huge issue as well and not entirely unrelated to supply chain disruption) but also economically and physically.
Guess what: AM can today provide the perfect solution to these issues. It is not yet—and won’t be for some time still—a solution to all manufacturing challenges, but high-speed AM production technologies for both polymers and metals can ensure that manufacturers now have access to local, on-demand production alternatives. Note that on-demand manufacturing implies local, digital manufacturing (from digital inventory) and it is a different concept from just-in-time manufacturing, which is a solution for producing large stocks of products by leveraging low-cost traditional mass-production methods and globalized shipping.
The main bottleneck to implementing AM as an on-demand production alternative to supply chain disruptions is not—as many still think— found in the limits of AM materials and processes. The real bottleneck is in designing parts for digital AM production, a concept sometimes summarized by the acronym DfAM. Even if several traditionally manufactured parts already exist in digital storage, via CAD-based “digital twins“, this is not enough. In order to fully leverage AM as a production solution, these CAD models need to undergo testing and optimization so that they can fully benefit from additive production methods. DfAM doesn’t mean that every part needs to be entirely redesigned. Some parts can be produced by AM just as they are, however they still need to undergo a process that identifies the ideal AM methods and materials to use. Also, because AM technology evolves so quickly, this process needs to be highly dynamic and able to rapidly adapt to new possibilities.
Because it is so adaptable, AM can offer the ideal solution to rapidly changing global supply chain dynamics and unexpected disruption. Part and component designs have to become just as dynamic. The tools to do this proficiently already exist. However the providers of these software tools, even the largest and most advanced ones like Dassault, Autodesk, Ansys or nTopology, still generally fail to recognize that they need to target the new generation of product designers—those who design with AM in mind—instead of focusing on their core audiences of traditional manufacturers that don’t fully understand this new language. These AM designers represent the key step to enable the necessary transition from just-in-time to on-demand.