A few months ago Lee-Bath Nelson LEO Lane’s Co-Founder and VP Business wrote an article for Supply Chain Management Review on how additive manufacturing can change the supply chain and specifically inventory systems for the better (you can find the original article here). Back then she addressed “today’s complex and volatile geopolitical climate”, without knowing that a few months later a pandemic will make the supply chain an urgent topic.
In the article, Nelson discussed the benefits of virtual inventory, as opposed to physical inventory. Beyond the obvious of manufacturing only the quantities needed there is added value brought by a simplified supply chain: “By using virtual inventory, you can bypass physical borders, tariffs, trade issues and a whole other host of potential landmines. Clearly this saves both time and money”, says Nelson. Yet today it’s more than saving time or money, it’s about enabling the existence of businesses or even economies with Distributed Additive Manufacturing (DAM). “Being sure that parts will always be there on time (e.g., for an assembly plant) is yet another headache of supply chain managers that can be avoided with DAM smart production. To the layperson this might seem like a small thing but, as supply chain managers know very well, it really isn’t”.
Today failures in the supply chain are felt in different aspects of our daily lives, these are no longer worries limited to supply chain managers but their effects trickle down to each and every one of us. It can be a long wait for something you ordered online or in a worse case a distinct lack of protective equipment for healthcare workers. In Israel, for example, regular testing for COVID-19 could speed up the return of the workforce but the lack of test swabs, reagents, and so on is preventing it. The process relies on products and materials delivered from overseas, and as we all know demand is high all over the world. As a response, the Israeli government found local plants that can produce these elements. In the future, these items can be locally manufactured on demand, in times of need.
Additive manufacturers such as Carbon are now engaged in additively manufacturing test swabs (above and up top). The AM process from development to certification to manufacturing is quick – working together with Resolution Medical the two companies managed to bring the swabs to regular production (already available for order) and plan to supply a million swabs per week. At the same time, Carbon in a collaboration with Adidas is already additively manufacturing (and donating!) 18,000 face shields each week (2nd below). Of course, the process is sped up due to the urgency but, in general, AM allows for a faster, more agile process compared to traditional technologies and processes and the associated supply chain is less vulnerable to geographic and pandemic problems. While in some cases it will take a while to implement and for us to feel the impact of the results, these are important steps toward establishing more resilient supply chains for a future in which pockets of COVID-19 or other, outbreaks are possible.
The Necessity of Localization
The necessity of localization isn’t limited to our current situation, it occurs in regular times as well. One example that comes to mind is Brexit. Nelson points out a recent interview conducted with former CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, Dr. Ralf Speth, who warned of the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, where the UK leaves the EU without an established agreement. “Speth predicted that such an eventuality would cause his company severe problems and that delays in the supply of the 25 million parts used across production lines on a daily basis in the UK alone would shatter their Just-in-time production operations”. According to Speth the supply bottlenecks from a ‘no deal’ Brexit could bring production to a halt and cost $73.5 million a day.
Nelson sees the challenges brought by Brexit as well as the current COVID-19 situation as a moment in time to reevaluate how manufacturing and supply chains can improve to better serve (and be profitable of course) in changing times. “For Jaguar Land Rover and others like them, this is a golden opportunity to determine which of this huge number of parts can be additively manufactured locally in the UK and avoid this problem, at least for those parts”. She goes on saying “Localized manufacturing stands to get a boost from AM production, shifting manufacturing back to areas that have left that industry decades ago. AM centers are cropping up everywhere, and this is very good news for their local economy, creating jobs and allowing citizens to spend money locally. All music to the ears of local leadership and companies”. The company has already tested the AM waters when providing 3D printed gloves meant to provide protection against musculoskeletal disorders for their workers (below), we can imagine that in the near future, they will address the current challenges by extending the use of AM in their operations.
The Times are Changing
AM enables a distributed supply chain not only in terms of last-mile-delivery but also in applying expertise, especially if you have a DAM smart lane of consistency enforcement. As Nelson described it: “even if there aren’t experts in each location, the company’s expertise will be applied and enforced every time the part is 3D printed, so parts come out correctly and consistently –very important for brand reputation!” The goal is achieving secure and consistent manufacturing through all phases, from initial manufacturing to the ultimate distributed manufacturing of end parts. “With it, you can go ahead and turn your inventory into bytes and say goodbye to the hassles of moving stuff – and the associated cost of doing so. Indeed, US companies spent a record $1.5 trillion on shipping costs in 2017 as demand and prices for logistics services continues to increase. Globally this is predicted to reach $10.6 trillion by next year, with transportation costs accounting for 70%”. The unforeseen pandemic we’re all facing has made us realize that we can do things differently and take a good hard look at digital life: working from home, buying online, digital inventory, and a much more digital supply chain. AM with a consistent secure lane, keeping it repeatable and correct plays nicely into this paradigm.
What are your thoughts on the challenges and benefits of an AM supply chain? Tell us about them in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.