3D Manufacturing and COVID-19
The global pandemic may be taking the U.S. back to the days of regional manufacturing, simplifying supply chains and making us more self-sufficient.
“3D printing” is a collective term for several different technologies for building parts layer by layer. Recently, hybrid systems have begun to integrate 3D printers and traditional manufacturing techniques, like milling, drilling, polishing, and the ability to pick and place components that cannot yet be 3D printed. I call the process performed by hybrid systems “3D manufacturing,” also known as direct digital manufacturing. 3D printing is for making parts in a single machine. 3D manufacturing is for making complete products, like fully functioning electronic devices, in one machine.
Two of the great promises of 3D manufacturing are distributed and regional manufacturing. The global pandemic may be a shot in the arm (pun intended) for realizing these promises.
3D manufacturing enables products to be made where they are needed, not in remote places from which they are shipped to the point of need. Because 3D manufacturing systems can make entire parts or products with fewer machines, fewer steps and, therefore, fewer people, they can eliminate the benefits of making things where labor is cheap; and, therefore, manufacturing can be distributed all over the world.
Like a super strong magnet, 3D manufacturing can pull manufacturing away from mass-production hubs and redistribute it, product by product, among thousands or tens of thousands of smaller factories across the globe. As the Atlantic Council said, “If production is decentralized, then mass production of hundreds of thousands of a given product may be done by producing thousands on 100 printers that are near the source of demand around the world rather than at one factory producing hundreds of thousands of the same item.”
3D manufacturing enables products to be made where they are needed, not in remote places from which they are shipped to the point of need. Regional Manufacturing
Before the Industrial Revolution, products were made near where they were needed. 3D manufacturing can take us back to the days when most things were made regionally, thereby shortening and simplifying supply and distribution chains and making countries, or regions, more self-sufficient.
As IBM said in a report on 3D printing and smart robotics, “The optimal manufacturing location by 2022 is regional or local rather than global…The result of this is a supply chain that is no longer big, complex, and global. Rather, it will be comparatively small, simple, and local.” The timing of the pandemic makes this prediction seem prescient.
As 3D manufacturing develops, distributed and regional manufacturing are gaining ground. But as pandemic-induced supply chain disruption has shown, distributed and regional manufacturing — not just in the U.S., but everywhere — are important for both public health and national security.
A Shot in the Arm
Jeff Graves, CEO of U.S. 3D printer manufacturer 3D Systems, capsulized the supply chain havoc caused by the pandemic: “COVID caused every company in the world to look at their supply chain and say, ‘I can’t tolerate this, I have to have more flexibility.’”
John Wilczynski, executive director of the U.S.-government sponsored 3D printing accelerator called America Makes, said “The pandemic has revealed our untenable overdependence on imports.” Of course, he is right, but he is right for every country that has realized that overdependence on extended supply chains is very risky.
As pandemic-induced supply chain disruption has shown, distributed and regional manufacturing are important for both public health and national security. Recognizing the risks inherent in extended and dependent supply chains revealed by the pandemic, President Biden recently ordered 100-day and more detailed one-year reviews of potential vulnerabilities in U.S. supply chains for critical products, including medical equipment, personal protective gear, and computer chips. As the President said, “The American people should never face shortages for the goods they rely on… We need to stop playing catch-up.”
The 3D printing industry rose to the pandemic’s challenge, regionally manufacturing nasal swabs, ventilator parts, and face masks. Recently, 3D printer manufacturer RIZE launched its “Safe at Home” manufacturing program, to help companies build self-sufficient, distributed supply chains for the office or factory, or for working from home. One company, Festo SE & Co KG, is using the Safe at Home program to enable its employees to 3D print parts regionally.
Realizing the Promise
Distributed and regional manufacturing is already happening. Over the past decade, thousands of 3D printing fabricators have sprung up across the world, each affecting supply chains in its own way. And some self-sufficiency and shortening of supply chains resulting from initiatives like President Biden’s will not involve 3D manufacturing.
Major adoption of distributed and regional manufacturing will take time, political support, diligence, ingenuity, continued adoption of 3D printing, continued development of 3D manufacturing, and reengineering existing supply chains. The global pandemic has been a light-bulb moment for governments and industry, highlighting the importance of greater supply chain self-sufficiency. With sufficient support and follow through, the result will be increased distributed and regional manufacturing, some of which will be provided by 3D printing and 3D manufacturing.
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