Supply chain and COVID-19

How COVID-19 Can Restructure Supply Chains Forever

April 24, 2020
While additive manufacturing can be used as a stopgap for disruption, a long-term transformation could happen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted real problems with global manufacturing supply chains. Machine Design recently discussed these issues—as well as temporary and long-term solutions—with Dave Veisz, vice president of Engineering at MakerBot, and Michael Mignatti, the company’s senior director of Manufacturing and Quality.

Machine Design: What are some pitfalls in the manufacturing supply chain that are coming to light during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dave Veisz: Supply chains are globalized, even for small- to medium-sized businesses. This additional complexity to supply chains adds risk of disruption in times such as these. The other factor is that “just-in-time” supply chains are great for lean manufacturing, but just-in-time does mean that there are less buffers that handle disruption. Therefore, a single supplier closure can have huge trickle-down effects that shut down assembly lines.

Michael Mignatti: Pandemics and other shocks highlight how fragile and interconnected the supply chain structures are. You or your supplier may not be located in an affected area but, if their raw material is in that region, then you are affected.

MD: What advice can you give to manufacturers whose suppliers are mainly in China?

DV: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted worldwide production. While the initial impact was in China, Chinese factories and suppliers are now operational, whereas domestic production is impacted in many regions today. Producers should have a mitigation plan for supply chain issues. Ideally, each item can be sourced from different regions (local and overseas); however, this is tough to do for lower volumes.

For lower volumes, 3D printing and quick-turn PCBA manufacturing can be a viable backup solution for many components. Many companies are already using 3D printing for spare part production in the defense and rail industries, where there are high barriers for approval.

MM: Contingency planning is critical wherever your suppliers are located. Disruptions to the system can happen at any time and modern supply chains are inherently fragile. The COVID-19 pandemic is particularly challenging because of its impact on supply chains worldwide. While the factories in China are generally back up, the distribution networks are still struggling.

If you have remote suppliers, I would suggest you identify critical elements of the supply chain and develop mitigation strategies for them. The capability of additive manufacturing has greatly improved in recent years and should be seriously considered in the strategy and planning.

MD: Some people think the recovery of supply chains will result in more North American suppliers. What are your thoughts on this?

DV: This is certainly possible. The pandemic response has shed light on the issues inherent when there are no domestic options for certain emergency response items such as personal protection equipment (PPE). We have seen a huge contribution of 3D printing to make face shields and test kits, but this is a stopgap to address a dire need and not a long-term solution, as mass production is needed to meet the volume demands.

While we have a national stockpile of emergency equipment, that has proved to be inadequate, and it seems that we will need national emergency manufacturing plans for essential items.

MM: Yes, I think this is probable. Americans are particularly resourceful and entrepreneurial—the success of 3D printing during the pandemic has demonstrated the capability of 3D printing in new industries. I look forward to seeing how this will be applied in different industries—both augmenting existing supply chains and developing new applications.

MD: Can you think of any new supply chain technology that could come out of this? How could it help mitigate future supply chain disruptions?

DV: Yes, there should be further evaluation of quick-turn manufacturing methods in the production of essential supplies. For example, which 3D printing methods and materials are certified for use to replace medical parts for various applications.

Regulatory agencies are scrambling to approve 3D-printed devices for emergency use cases right now, but I do think planning for the future means that there is a need to be more proactive and approve 3D-printed manufacturing options for various critical components and assemblies. If this is done proactively, it will be very easy to ramp up production using alternate additive manufacturing methods on demand.

MM: As Dave indicated, looking at essential supplies is a great place to start. This can lead to new designs and materials focused on printed versions of these critical parts. Developing a digital warehouse of critical supplies that can be produced locally across the supply chain will become a reality.

MD: How is the additive manufacturing industry coming together to help maintain production in this slower, more-volatile economy?

DV: The response from the global 3D printing community has been incredible. MakerBot users and many others who have access to a 3D printer are manufacturing medical PPE and supplies for their regional needs. At the same time, MakerBot is supporting independent operations by providing a platform for sharing designs, print files and assembly instructions.

There are several design challenges on 3D file sharing sites, including Thingiverse and GrabCad, where engineers, designers and educators are submitting novel designs that are then being produced globally by the 3D printing community.

MM: The additive manufacturing community has been phenomenal during the outbreak. We have heard from countless customers—everyone from teachers and new users to seasoned veterans and machine shops—who have converted their garages or workshops into mini-production lines. Every part helps, and they have made a significant and needed contribution. It is really great to see.

In addition to the community, the response from the industry leaders and professionals has likewise been great. Novel designs for PPE will continue to provide utility even after we get past the worst of the crisis. I am encouraged by the new possibilities—printed swabs are a great use case for SLA technology, and I am sure just the start of new applications for printing.

MD: What else, if anything, is the additive manufacturing industry learning from this event, and how should we apply those lessons once the pandemic’s effects are behind us?

DV: The interest from MakerBot customers has been incredible. We have received many inquiries from users, who have access from anywhere from a single machine to a MakerBot Innovation Center with 40-plus machines, as to how they can best service their local needs. There are tens of thousands of active MakerBot users, and it has been a challenge to most efficiently harness the power of this user base to be a positive force. 

Another lesson learned is just the need for certifying 3D printing methods and materials for backup production parts. A 3D printer can produce infinite geometry on demand; thus, a single printer can be used to create an entire library of parts.

The whole community would be better served if supply chains can be transitioned to additive technologies at the flip of a switch if these methods and materials have been approved for use. There is nothing worse than a factory that is blocked from making a critical assembly because they are missing that one injection-molded part!

MM: Completely agree with Dave—augmenting the traditional supply chain with 3D printing is a viable way to weather a supply chain disruption, whether it is a part shortage or complete factory closure. 3D printing allows you to print parts where you can and develop a quick-turn/rapid production infrastructure for the parts you cannot. Developing printed versions of key parts should be part of the production development and release processes.

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