Mitigating Supply Chain Risk with End-to-End Automated Additive Manufacturing

When considering Additive for its speed, flexibility, and efficiency, examine how to extend these benefits through the final step of the process.

Mitigating risk within supply chains is a goal that most manufacturers work toward improving incrementally. For this issue to be brought to the top of the priority list, it usually takes a major, often crisis-inducing event. While we’re probably most accustomed to supply chain issues caused by hazardous weather events or trade disruptions caused by diplomacy, this time around, the global COVID-19 pandemic is the source of economic disruption. The volatile state of the stock market is enough to put many companies on edge right now, not to mention the innate fear that they may not be able to meet contracted deadlines. While this pandemic is inhibiting a variety of industries from operating normally, it is especially impacting supply chains as we know them across sectors like consumer goods, automotive, food and beverage, transportation, and more.

COVID-19 has already impacted hundreds of thousands of people across the globe – and numbers only continue to rise. Considering the pandemic initially broke out in the province of Wuhan in China, many western-based companies who rely on Tier 1 and Tier 2 shipments from China were immediately impacted. As a result, we can expect to keep seeing the cost of shipments from China increase on account of premiums, as well as overtime and expedited freight costs. As demands for certain products spike in the short term, stockpiling will also surely force some businesses into vulnerable positions as they struggle to retain inventory. Now that the virus has given rise to quarantines across Europe and the United States, it is beginning to even impact companies who domestically source their raw goods and labor, as well.

As the situation progresses in the west while some eastern manufacturers begin to bounce back, it is in the best interest of companies to actively analyze the implications COVID-19 is placing on their supply chains. To gain an accurate understanding of their situation and best prepare for the coming months, it is recommended that businesses perform operational risk assessments, round up data across all supply chain tiers, and create a temporary inventory recovery process. While this pandemic makes once-sound supply chains increasingly high risk and unreliable, those who utilize Additive Manufacturing within their supply chain have a little less to worry about.

Where Additive Comes In

Thanks to its on-demand nature, Additive Manufacturing provides a myriad of production benefits while lessening the commercial impact of supply chain disruptions. The ability to produce parts in-house allows for total process control and dynamic flexibility. Having a stockpile of digital designs enables on-demand production, cutting the costs of setting up and managing an initial inventory. As Supply Chain Digital reports, “The cost-benefit [of additive] goes beyond the transportation in that we eliminate the need to get rid of obsolete parts. Only parts that are demanded are produced – no obsolete parts! This is a huge win for the environment and a clear cost saving to the brand.”

Additionally, in-house additive production allows for simple customization of parts, without having to go through a variety of channels. Because 3D printing has virtually no limitations when it comes to developing complex geometries, custom parts can easily be produced en masse, in much less time than more traditional methods would allow. This ability resolves common bottlenecks that arise around more complex assemblies of specialized parts.

While in-house additive production is renowned for low costs and quick turnaround times, its ability to lessen reliance on outside suppliers is especially critical during this period of pandemic and uncertainty. So as more U.S. manufacturers proceed with swapping out overseas labor for domestic 3D printing solutions, they can expect to see faster speed-to-market of new products, quicker order fulfillment, and an increased ability to rapidly adapt their business processes in this volatile market.

Post-Printing: A Help or Hindrance Your New Additive Operation

Those new to additive will need to understand the post-printing step’s notorious reputation for slowing down workflows. As the final leg of the three-step “design, print, post-print” cycle, conventional support removal and surface finishing processes tend to require copious amounts of manual labor or utilize out-dated equipment not designed for additive. For manufacturers turning on an additive operation utilizing finite in-house resources, it is not ideal to start the endeavor using valuable engineer or technician time on laborious finishing of 3D printed parts with inconsistent final part outcomes.

To avoid these sorts of bottlenecks while maintaining supply chain efficiency, an approach that employs an automated solution is key. Letting software take the wheel in the post-printing step can help additive manufacturing reach its full promise of a digital workflow – improved efficiencies, productivity, and consistency with minimal manual labor – ultimately allowing for increased throughput for the entire operation. To truly make the most out of a switch in your supply chain to incorporate 3D printing, scalable and automated post-printing should be a critical factor in your transition plan.

Learn more here about the effects of COVID-19 on the additive manufacturing realm from Gardner Intelligence chief economist Michael Guckes and Additive Manufacturing senior editor Stephanie Hendrixson.

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