Article

5 manufacturing trends that will shape our post-pandemic world

By John Nanry, Co-Founder and Chief Fulfillment Officer, Fast Radius

It’s been more than seven months since COVID-19 upended the status quo around the globe. It goes without saying that it’s been a complex, tumultuous time for everyone — especially if you work in manufacturing.

Through the upheaval, our team at Fast Radius has been working closely with our partners, helping them navigate this changing landscape. We’ve had front row seats to view the impacts of COVID-19 on manufacturing, and we’ve distilled what we learned into five key themes shaping the way we make and move things around the world.

1. The need for supply chain flexibility is here to stay

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that companies need to prepare for shocks in demand by building a flexible, scalable supply chain. This worst case scenario has forced manufacturers to test and embrace processes that will diversify their supply chain, like onshoring suppliers or additive manufacturing.

As companies see the benefits of these processes, it’s becoming clear that they’re more than just short-term solutions — they are critical parts of a truly resilient supply chain. We should expect that the “alternatives” manufacturers are using to create flexibility for their business today will become mainstays.

2. We can’t pump the brakes on innovation

I’m sure that GM didn’t expect to retool their factories for ventilator production ( just as our team at Fast Radius never dreamed designing and making reusable face shields to sell directly to customers), but COVID-19 has forced manufacturers to pivot their operations, services, and products to meet new demand. Companies that put innovation at the core of their business are better equipped to make the necessary pivots, and they’re leading the charge to create the products necessary for our new reality.

Manufacturing Trends Listing
 Many manufacturers shifted their operations to production of PPE in the face of COVID-19.

For example, people are shying away from airplane travel, so road trips are expected to increase. How will automakers improve the in-vehicle experience? Or, as factories and offices prepare for long bouts of humanless work environments, what kinds of robotics and automation technologies can fill the void? The companies with the flexibility to address these new challenges quickly will be best able to protect their businesses during uncertain times.

3. It's time to shore up capital inefficiencies

As organizations are looking for ways to cut costs and stay cash flow positive, many are abandoning plans to invest in internal production capabilities and are outsourcing instead. Historically, outsourcing meant that the least expensive suppliers win the day, but low prices alone aren’t going to suffice during times like these. Companies are searching for contract manufacturers who have the right mix of technology and one-stop, end-to-end services from design to fulfillment — creating a full process that matches the rigor of internal infrastructure.

4. Digital manufacturing is a hero, but there is a knowledge gap

We’ve seen massive interest in digital manufacturing, but there’s a need for greater understanding to harness its full potential. Industrial-grade additive manufacturing is being embraced to solve production deficits for test swabs, ventilators, and more. (TechCrunch had a great article on this earlier in the pandemic.) This focus on 3D printing as a solution to COVID-related manufacturing and supply chain problems has highlighted the knowledge gap many companies have when it comes to meaningfully deploying this process for their business.

manufacturing trends pandemic
Manufacturers are still working to fully grasp the capabilities of digital manufacturing, but its possibilities could reap countless benefits.

Many of our partners are figuring out which technologies to invest in, how to create distributed manufacturing networks, and how to design for additive manufacturing. It’s critical for Industry 4.0 leaders to step up and help educate the market so we can activate these processes at scale not just to solve today’s problems, but to fundamentally change the way we manufacture in the future.

5. Digital coordination and collaboration are essential

The global crisis has amplified manufacturing’s need for digitally orchestrated processes and information sharing. In the past few months we’ve seen massive efforts to meet critical deficits in PPE, ventilators, and testing equipment, but there hasn’t been a single method for sharing and coordinating all of the design work, manufacturing information, and supplier activation needed to truly scale these solutions. In a recent editorial our CEO, Lou Rassey, made a compelling case for a national virtual warehouse to store electronic designs and manufacturing instructions for vital emergency equipment.

Such a plan would allow us to respond quickly in a crisis, allowing any manufacturer to access the design and process data needed to make critical supplies where and when they’re needed.  In the private sector, virtual warehouses serve the same purpose. With the right manufacturing data, we can produce parts anywhere in the world with the right equipment. This capability allows us to mitigate the regional instability in supply chains brought on not only by the pandemic, but also by environmental and political upheaval.

These five trends aren’t new to us, but they’ve become crucially important more quickly than we anticipated. The pandemic has pushed us toward a future where success will depend on flexibility, resilience, and innovation.

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