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Can additive manufacturing solve supply chain issues?

Over the last few years, companies around the globe have experienced supply chain problems, showing that the global pandemic has had consequences for businesses large and small. On top of the surge in consumer demand, there was a shortage of shipping containers and dockworkers, a decline in air freight capacity, and a lack of truck drivers, leading to port congestion. Ships were left idling off shore for days, or even weeks — and the problem is ongoing. At the tail end of 2021 and the start of 2022, container ships spent an average of seven days at American ports.

 

These supply chain disruptions have also caused manufacturing delays. All industries experienced record-long lead times for raw materials in October of 2021, and things haven’t improved much. For example, chipmakers must wait 18 months for critical equipment, such as electronic modules, lenses, valves, and pumps.

 

Additive manufacturing may offer some much-needed relief to supply chain issues. It can provide several benefits when it comes to low-volume production runs, quality control, and material cost, making it a viable alternative to the traditional supply chain and a more predictable asset during turbulent times.

Why additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, involves manufacturing or printing a part directly layer by layer, as opposed to subtractive methods like machining. It’s an accurate, highly digitized process that requires much less tooling and setup, eliminating the need for molds, forms, and specialized cutting tools.

 

Compared to traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing technology offers several advantages, including:

Faster lead times

Additive manufacturing allows for faster prototyping and low volume production, helping companies accelerate the design iteration and product validation processes to get their products to market faster. For example, in response to COVID-19, we developed a face shield that was first produced using additive manufacturing, but — in response to increased demand — was later shifted to injection molding in order to scale production.

 

Plus, since there’s no need for tooling, you can print end-use parts within a few hours or days instead of spending weeks or months for setup associated with designing and fabricating tooling, like a mold, as you would when injection molding. Essentially, you can start the production run as soon as the final design is complete and a printer is available.

Increased flexibility and agility

3D printers enable companies to print parts on demand, offering incredible flexibility and agility. Not only can companies quickly and cheaply create custom products with 3D printing technology, but they can also easily produce more or less of a product as demand shifts.

 

While ramping up production with injection molding, design changes after release can mean waiting weeks or months for another tool to be created. With the elimination of tooling, 3D printing enables companies to shift gears quickly. For example, during the early stages of the pandemic, HP printed over 2.3 million medical components, including nasal swabs, personal protective equipment, and ventilator parts when the demand was dynamically growing. Had they used injection molding, they would have needed to design and manufacture a mold, which could have taken months.

Decentralized production

Using 3D printing technology will also enable companies to decentralize production. Instead of producing goods in a single location and shipping them worldwide, companies can manufacture goods close to or at their point of use. Distributed production can drastically shorten the supply chain, eliminating many potential bottlenecks and accelerating a product’s time to market, so it’s hardly surprising that 52% of companies were considering localized production in 2021.

 

By manufacturing products closer to their final destination, companies can sidestep many traditional problems associated with imported products, from delays caused by clogged ports to COVID-19 lockdowns to rapidly rising prices and tariffs due to trade wars. Shifting towards additive technology and a decentralized production system can also help companies get products in consumers’ hands faster, avoid the cost of long-haul shipping, and cut back on transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduced warehousing costs

3D printers allow companies to manufacture goods on-demand, meaning you can produce the exact number of parts you need and then ship them directly to your customers, more perfectly matching supply and demand. Instead of buying or renting a warehouse, you can rely on digital inventories and produce parts whenever a customer submits an order.

 

Since warehouse vacancy is at just 3.6% and demand will likely only increase as more companies reshore manufacturing and diversify their supply chains, printing on demand and shifting to a digital warehouse rather than storing physical inventory can help save a significant amount of capital.

Can building additive manufacturing into production cycles avoid future disruptions?

While most companies believe it’s time to take action to avoid future supply chain disruptions, it can be difficult to identify which measures to take. For those that have shifted tactics, many are relying on short-term measures. In fact, less than half of the 3,000 chief executives surveyed by AlixPartners have taken action to alleviate supply chain disruptions in the long term.

 

Building additive manufacturing into the production cycle can help companies mitigate or avoid future supply chain disruptions. After all, additive manufacturing supports decentralized manufacturing and allows for a simpler supply chain and increased flexibility and agility. Companies can produce products closer to their destination, potentially avoiding supply chain bottlenecks like severe port congestion. Additive allows companies to produce the exact quantity required, reducing excess shipments to warehouses before distribution to customers.

What are the risks of replacing the traditional supply chain with an additive manufacturing supply chain?

Given the many benefits of additive manufacturing, it’s hardly surprising that the global market for 3D printing products and services was around $12.6 billion in 2020 and will continue to grow in the coming years as more companies rebuild shorter or more flexible additive supply chains. However, people who have spent their careers designing for or working with injection molding or CNC machining may have difficulty shifting to these newer disruptive processes.

 

Common problems people run into while 3D printing include warping, cracks, poor layer-to-layer adhesion, and part failures. Thankfully, technological advancements in the manufacturing equipment and materials worlds have made these problems smaller and less frequent, as well as engineers working across the life cycle from design to manufacturing. For example, in fused deposition modeling (FDM), layer shifting, stringing, under-extrusion, and over-extrusion are possible, but experienced engineers and manufacturing technicians are continually developing solutions to improve part quality. Similar process advancements in other additive technologies (SLA, SLS, etc.) have been made to make more applications possible. However, these advancements require a 3D printing partner that has the knowledge and expertise to develop and employ these novel processes.

 

If you work with Fast Radius, our experienced engineers will be able to review and refine your design, helping you manufacture parts quickly and cost-effectively without making difficult quality sacrifices. Our domestic factories and distributed production capabilities will help you avoid the delays and headaches associated with overseas logistics, and our suite of digital tools can automatically detect design issues before your part or product goes into production. You can also explore various materials and manufacturing methods before initiating a quote. To learn more about how Fast Radius’ additive capabilities can help resolve your supply chain issues, accelerate production, and ensure maximum cost-per-part efficiency, create an account or contact us today.

 

Visit our resource center to learn about designing for additive manufacturing, choosing the right 3D printing technology, and more.

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