Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

AM Meets Supply-Chain Challenges, Positions Itself as Long-Term Answer

April 21, 2021


"If the disruptions caused by the pandemic have taught us anything, it’s how fragile supply chains can be―especially those that have been optimized for cost at the expense of responsiveness.”

This observation, from Daniel Lazier, strategic application engineer at Markforged who authored an article on how the additive manufacturing (AM) industry might move forward, hits the nail on the head.

The decades-long trend toward just-in-time manufacturing, relying on timely shipments of supplies in the door, and deliveries out, while reducing inhouse inventories, ran smack into COVID-19 this past year-plus. Stretched supply lines, lengthened by many supply-chain participants seeking greater cost savings as transportation remained relatively cheap and dependable, finally snapped under the pandemic pull.

As demand soared for certain goods, such as appliances, manufacturers couldn’t keep up, as we describe in this issue’s 2021 Market Report. For example, during the second half of 2020, GE Appliances increased production by 25 percent in response to demand, thanks to capital investment as well as to a concerted plant-floor reorganization effort to meet pandemic-related spacing in its plants.

Still, “We literally cannot keep up with the demand,” Melanie Cook, GE Appliances CEO, told the Wall Street Journal in December 2020. “We’ve invested, added capacity, and we’re still flat out.” 

For its part, AM stepped up big, building on its potential to be a supply-chain saver. Not only that, AM became a literal life saver. 
“For example,” writes Lazier in his article, “the maker community leveraged 3D printers to print personal protective equipment until manufacturers were able to pivot their lines to produce at scale.”

Industrial AM joined the battle, as system providers and print houses collaborated with health providers to meet supply needs for critical medical items such as ventilators, masks and testing kits.

“This trend toward collaborative, distributed production certainly will continue throughout 2021 and beyond,” Lazier writes.
The ability for AM technology and its user community to rapidly pivot and provide product quickly and without the need for costly tool design and build, sets up our industry for solid growth and as a key cog in the supply chain, in good times and bad. Digital networks can link printers throughout the world, providing the ability to create prototypes or volume parts locally or even at the point of use, without the need for shipment. And, the sustainability inherent in such a production model is most attractive to governments, companies and populations alike.

We can glimpse what’s coming by seeing what’s already arrived. To consolidate metal-AM technologies and enable collaboration, and quick design, production and delivery of products worldwide, Neighborhood 91 has opened its doors in a 195-acre development adjacent to the Pittsburgh International Airport. A public/private partnership provided the infrastructure, including a reliable micro power grid, argon-gas delivery and recycling, powder storage, and more. AM institutions and companies now are stepping in to build a concentrated base of expertise and capabilities to fuel economical scaling of AM development and production. Read more in our profile of Neighborhood 91.

This most definitely is AM’s honeymoon period, and innovation continues to no longer just offer AM as the shiny, new thing, but cement it as an integral force in the worldwide making and delivery of things.

Industry-Related Terms: Additive manufacturing
View Glossary of 3D Metal Printing Terms

 

See also: Markforged

Technologies: Applications, Management

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