Additive Manufacturing for Supply Chain Management
Natural disasters, political conflicts, trade policy decisions — all those, and more, can wreak havoc on production and distribution. However, since 2020, global supply chains have experienced unprecedented levels of disruption. If at some point in the last two years you struggled to find and purchase household items that were previously easy to locate (i.e., toilet paper), you know what supply chain disruption feels like.
In the last few decades, manufacturers have increasingly embraced just-in-time (JIT) or lean manufacturing to minimize inventory, increase efficiency, and reduce costs. Companies following the lean manufacturing model produce goods “on demand” rather than stockpiling inventory, and often rely on low-cost manufacturing available in other parts of the world.
The JIT model can work well under ideal circumstances. But because of geographical influences, logistical interdependencies, and shipping distances, there are also plenty of opportunities for supply chain problems to arise, such as with the Suez Canal — in March 2021, a large container ship became lodged in the Suez for six days, resulting in global shipping delays and millions of dollars in lost revenue.
According to predictions made by a number of economists, these supply chain strategy woes are likely to persist until the end of 2022. Many experts, however, still remain bullish on the additive manufacturing supply chain and its potential to relieve many of these pain points.
How does additive manufacturing solve supply chain issues?
When a supply chain disruption causes a shortage of tools and parts needed for manufacturing, factory production can stall for weeks. Even a single missing part is more than enough to hold up supply chain logistics and cause manufacturing operations to halt.
There are a few different ways the additive manufacturing supply chain can help relieve these pain points, offering a kind of insurance policy against acute supply chain hiccups while reducing overall dependence on suppliers:
- Broken or missing parts needed for manufacturing can be quickly printed in a matter of days to keep factory operations afloat.
- Designs for parts can be stored digitally and sent to on-site printers. The part will then arrive at the precise point of need, without additional wait times and shipping costs.
Traditional manufacturing methods require a longer, drawn-out process to replace each part. Tooling has to be created, lead times can take months, and fabrication is pricey for parts manufactured in low volumes.
With the maturation of AM technologies, even highly-regulated industries like aerospace are finding ways to incorporate additive manufacturing to create end-use parts and streamline production processes. This results in increased cost savings and less reliance on increasingly fragile global supply chains.
Sometimes, it takes a disruptive force to reshape the economic landscape for the better — like what happened 80+ years ago during World War II when countries around the world began to rethink manufacturing, supply chains, and supply chain management.
P.S. For a brief, informative recap of how the pandemic negatively impacted manufacturing in the first half of 2020, take a look at this blog post.
US Military Overcomes Supply Chain Risks with 3D Printing
Panel Discussion: How Siemens, Dana, Würth and Vestas Tackle Supply Chain Challenges
Industrial 3D Printing Allowed Manufacturers to Persevere Through COVID-19, According to New Research
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