These last few weeks we have seen the entire world move to a virtual existence. Online shopping, virtual museum tours, online databases of books and movies opened to the public, virtual meetings, and even virtual family dinners. We’ve been using virtual tools for quite some time now, in many different aspects, but current times bring virtual tools from being perceived as tools for improved efficiency to essential tools – tools for much needed social interaction as well as for maintaining the function of economies (to a degree) in these difficult times. This brings us to look differently at virtual tools in manufacturing. Digital manufacturing and virtual inventory are topics that are tied to additive manufacturing (AM) and while the effect they can have on industry 4.0 is well established, now there is a new sense of urgency to these solutions.
Sharing Knowledge Globally
International collaboration is something we strive for, the ability to work with various experts without taking into consideration their geographical location. Every supply chain brings together numerous fields and expertise, in the AM supply chain this includes designers, engineers, optimization software, machine manufacturers, service providers, material experts, logistics, sales, marketing and so on. Sharing knowledge is an essential tool to achieve the best results, and if sharing knowledge (securely) can be enabled virtually, the possibilities are truly endless. During these times, the limitation of working from home emphasizes just how much can be done from afar. It’s not just workers in the same company scattered across various locations, communication between companies and partners is also limited to the virtual realm. Facing the Covid-19 crisis many companies in the AM ecosystem are offering to share expertise, whether it is knowledge or files, (Materialise and the door opener – up top, Stratasys protection equipment – below, masks and parts on Thingiverse and more). This can be extremely helpful but it’s important to keep in mind, even or perhaps especially, in this situation the importance of secure sharing. An AM file shared out of generosity and willingness to help can do the exact opposite if not manufactured correctly. Secure sharing will allow a company to protect its IP and knowledge but on top of that, it will also make sure parts and products are produced correctly and consistently and that the correct part is being produced. In addition, secure sharing allows companies to be helpful in times of crisis without canibalizing their business in the better times we hope will come when the crisis is over. We at LEO Lane are happy to help, pro bono, the life saving initiatives combating Covid-19. Please contact us if you want to securely share files and knowledge – we will gladly help.
While virtual tools enhance the global community, they can also empower local communities. As borders are closing, we see the increased importance of local manufacturing, as economies face inwards for production purposes. Yes, virtual collaboration and sharing knowledge is key, but when the skies are closed, global shipping and logistics can’t be relied on, manufacturing itself needs to take place as close as possible to the end customer. Ideally, a network of service providers, spread in various locations will enable companies to reach their customers even at times when transportation is limited. This, in a nutshell, is manufacturing on-demand – manufacturing what’s needed where it’s needed. Lately, many AM service providers are offering their services in manufacturing needed parts to the local community, but the supply chain isn’t established or secured yet (below Formlabs 3D printed test swabs). This by no means takes away from the benefits of these actions, initiatives, and the great pro bono work being done. In the long run, while at the moment these are reactions to a crisis, these relationships and collaborations have the potential to grow into a constant supply chain for times of crisis and peace.
Beyond the limits of transportation, companies are struggling to survive, which calls for agile approaches. Again, this is true for the current situation but also in better times, many companies thrive when employing agile models, Toyota is just one example. Can manufacturing be agile? Yes. The answer lies in virtual inventory. This ties back to local on-demand manufacturing. Last week we showed a hospital in Italy in need of valves for their respiratory machines. While the original supplier wasn’t able to meet demands a 3D printing company rose up to the challenge. Initiatives like this are happening all over the world now, but imagine if the original supplier had virtual files in stock instead of actual parts. First, the company would save on the high costs of keeping idle inventory and warehouses. Secondly, they wouldn’t run out of parts, they would be able to utilize remote on-demand additive manufacturing either with a certified manufacturer or by certifying a new manufacturer close to demand. They would be able to provide parts to the hospitals while upholding the integrity and safety required for manufacturing such a part. And most of all, there would be little to no delay in supplying the parts and providing care to patients in need. If worse comes to worst, the local hospital can make the call if they want uncertified service providers (as they did) that can at least use an original verified digital file and attached instructions.
In a way, virtual tools allow for looking inward and outward, working together across the globe but at the same time relying on local manufacturing. Manufacturing and logistics are changing, with and without the Coronavirus, this is as good a time as any to plan ahead for more independent manufacturing structures, in preparation for better times.
Tell us about your experience or thoughts on virtual tools in the AM ecosystem in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.