Additive Manufacturing – bridging disrupted supply chains in times of Covid-19?
The Covid-19 is severely affecting the business of manufacturing customers. Closed borders and increased border controls are disrupting or slowing down supply chains. Looking at pictures with 30-kilometer truck traffic congestion, for example at the German-Polish border, give an impression of the magnitude of problems currently faced in supply chains. Manufacturing industries are therefore in need of concepts and solutions to maintain their production, compensating for the shortfall of supplies.
Additive Manufacturing presents a solution to compensate for disrupted supply chains by providing the opportunity to “insource” the making of parts and components. Its undisputed flexibility to process parts of various shapes and geometries, makes it the choice to produce various types of parts that had formerly been procured from third parties. In addition, a lot of companies such as automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) such as Volkswagen or Daimler are offering their additive manufacturing capacities on the market to compensate for the lock down of their business. This represents an opportunity for all other businesses to more heavily rely on additive manufacturing e.g. of critical parts and components and become independent of supply chains.
So, what can be done in the advent of limited supplies, and how can businesses switch from supplies to “make” enabled by additive manufacturing?
First it needs to assess which supplied parts or components can be produced with additive manufacturing. This will include the application of a set of criteria such as the existence of 3D models of the part or component, and the material it consists of.
Furthermore, the cost of the to be produced part needs to be considered. This is important since in most cases the switch from procuring a part to producing it by additive manufacturing can create higher costs and therefore an unfavorable business case. Some will object to that in times of a crisis, but this is insignificant due to the fact that assuring production is the prime objective. This will play a major role, since the decision to embrace additive manufacturing and therefore insourcing should be a long-term decision. Switching back to supplied parts after the crisis may not be a (cost) efficient option anymore, and businesses might not want to pass up on the flexibility gained in another crisis that might turn up in the future.
Cost efficiency can be realized by optimizing parts or components. Additive manufacturing offers the opportunity to, for example, produce optimized designs or lighter parts with higher rigidity. Therefore, the assessment should, if necessary, be followed by an optimization of the part design. Methodologies such as M4AM (Methodologies for Additive Manufacturing) incorporate specialized consulting and engineering services to support customers in executing these activities. Finally, finding additive manufacturing service providers and/or leveraging customers` own additive manufacturing capacities will follow.
Although it might not solve all supply chain problems, the switch to additive manufacturing will help secure production in the times of the crisis. Furthermore, it will also provide flexibility in the future, that's to say after this crisis or during another potential crisis. It will also favor the insourcing of critical parts i.e. the substitution of procured parts from global sources with parts produced in Europe using additive manufacturing after this health crisis.