How Additive Manufacturing is Transforming the Supply Chain

AM has Become a Critical Factor in Supply Chain Readiness

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By Derek Wagoner

The mere mention of the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to business disruption has left many of us tired and depleted.  We have lived and breathed it for the past 18 months – and we have learned a lot. One monumental discovery for manufacturers:  While Additive Manufacturing (AM) is only being used in 18% of industrial businesses for end-use parts (according to a 2019 study by Ernst & Young), it has gone above and beyond to prove itself a crucial component for business strength and survival going forward.  Our world has become more digital, almost overnight, and companies will need to adopt AM to survive.

Let’s look at the key benefits, future view, and primary challenges right now for Additive Manufacturing:

Benefits of Additive Manufacturing

  • Fast, high volume production: Can produce high volumes more quickly than manpower
  • Unskilled laborers are sufficient: Doesn’t need the hard-to-find skilled labor to run these machines
  • Greater efficiency: Minimizes inefficiencies in production lines and supply chains
    • When employment gaps happened due to the pandemic, AM processes and functions were forced to step up in a big way for many manufacturers
  • Less environmental impact: Smaller environmental footprint due to its efficient use of resources and a shorter supply chain
    • Material used can almost always be recycled and re-used
  • Customizable parts: Custom options allows more unique, complex parts to be made quickly to go direct to consumer
  • Time savings: Doesn’t require time for tool development, and repairs or traditional machinery
  • More than just ‘3D’ production: While everyone recognizes the term 3D printing nowadays, there are actually seven different types of additive manufacturing available in 2021

The Future of Additive Manufacturing

Under President Biden’s executive order signed earlier this year, America’s supply chains were directed to enhance their resilience and reliability.  His administration believes that additive manufacturing is a key to strengthening supply chain readiness to make sure that a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic caused won’t happen again to manufacturers.

As manufacturers ramp back up and get back on track, it may be time to act – versus react – to how much things have changed.  Here are some changes already taking shape within the industry, and expectations going forward for AM:

  • Manufacturers will begin to design parts differently with additive manufacturing production as opposed to the traditional ways
  • The 3D printing market is projected to quadruple by 2025 to more than $50B
  • AM techniques and machinery are quickly becoming more affordable
  • Robots will do the moving, handling, pushing work so that the team members can do the critical thinking aspects of the job

In the coming years, AM is going to change from a disruptive technology only used by innovators to a method used somewhere along the production line for even the most common manufacturers.

Challenges Facing Additive Manufacturing

Of course, additive manufacturing does have a few challenges yet to overcome – most of which will require adaptability by the manufacturing industry itself, while others face the uphill battle between what is an industry perception versus a reality.    

First and foremost, there is a lack in confidence amongst manufacturers in part quality.  As it stands right now, the industry has not set IT or quality standards to measure the quality of the parts.  This has been a detriment to the adoption of AM. 

In addition, equipment costs of AM machines can’t compete with that of traditional manufacturing processes.  And the fact that the industry mindset sees AM only as a prototyping tool (63% of manufacturers only use it for prototyping in 2021) has been an obstacle to its adoption.

Lastly, the education required is different than normal manufacturers have had to deal with. Additive manufacturing involves software engineers instead of traditional welders or other manual laborers to run some of these machines.  Also, AM needs 3D printing systems that are engineered for more capabilities with higher production.

Major Disruptions Lead to Important Transformations

As a manufacturing business, if COVID-19 hasn’t forced you to dramatically change your products and/or how you work, you may be in the minority. You may also be vulnerable to the competition. Many businesses had to do more than pivot the last year and a half; they had to transform to survive. 

Additive manufacturing may have a few obstacles that stand in its way today, but it is quickly transforming mindsets for why it is a critical factor in supply chain readiness for a business to move ahead.  Manufacturers who aren’t implementing and using AM in some fashion within the next few years will find themselves falling behind their competitors who are.

K·Coe Isom works with manufacturing plants across the United States.  Should you have questions regarding additive manufacturing considerations or the financial management of additive manufacturing implementation, contact a KCoe manufacturing advisor.

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