When supply chain disruptions inhibited business operations in 2021, additive manufacturing offered a lifeline.
After a year fraught with supply chain and environmental crisis, the industrial world is being incentivized to adopt technological solutions, such as additive manufacturing, that improve the way we design and ship products.
In 2021, the global supply chain was roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic while the environment sent disastrous warnings of the planet’s fatigue with our inaction on climate change. The common refrain from manufacturers was “I can’t get parts to make my products,” or “My product is stuck at the port and I have no idea when to expect it.”
As these problems escalated—deeply affecting people, companies and economies—3D printing proved to be an important part of the supply chain solution. By giving companies more autonomy over the way their products are designed, produced and shipped, and enabling them to return production back to their home markets, OEMs began 3D printing their way to streamlining supply chains while reducing their footprint on the environment.
In 2022, however, we expect these three areas to converge rapidly as 3D printing—or the additive layering of materials on one another to create a product in a machine—unlocks an attractive alternative to traditional manufacturing, even in mass production.
Alleviating Supply Chain Headaches
Helping to usher in this new industrialization are companies such as California-based 3DEO, a leader in mass production of metal 3D-printed parts that is creating localized production hubs.
In one example, one of 3DEO’s customers was in a bind. The company was short one component in its products, which led to more than $500,000 in inventory that it could not ship. 3DEO started producing this component and, within four weeks, this customer was back in business.
Soaring demand over the past 12 months has led to a six-fold increase to 3DEO’s manufacturing floor space. Last summer, the 2016-founded company surpassed its one-millionth part printed and shipped to a customer—a staggering 566% year-over-year improvement—as its machines were rapidly at work producing parts for everything from medical surgical robots to airplane engine parts for Fortune 500 companies based in the U.S.
New patents that enable higher-volume production from industrial metal-printing machines are enabling faster and more efficient processes, tipping the scales toward localized manufacturing. OEMs have long had to ship metal parts from around the world to build complex metal products, forcing OEMs’ dependency on the global supply chain that proved cost-prohibitive and unpredictable during the backlogs of 2021. Supply shortages were up 638% in the first half of 2021 because of the pandemic, according to data from Resilinc, while dozens of cargo ships were stranded off the coast of San Diego through mid-October.
By printing parts on an as-needed basis at metal printing hubs, companies can prototype and iterate faster, scale up or down based on real-time fluctuations in demand, and get products to end-users more quickly without compromising their bottom lines during times of uncertainty.
3DEO uses patented metal 2D painting technology to produce parts and bring production closer to end users.
3D Printing Offers Sustainable Solutions
The cherry on top of this efficiency is how it is impacting the way companies are contributing to climate action and meeting their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.
A whopping 90% of companies’ impact on the environment comes from their supply chains, according to a report by McKinsey. But with Earth’s temperatures rising and scientists urging global leaders to take steps toward sustainability, companies are being pressured to adopt sustainable solutions to reduce their carbon footprint.
A typical consumer company’s supply chain accounts for more than 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 90% of the impact on air, land, water, biodiversity and geological resources, compared with the company’s own internal operations, noted McKinsey. But 3D printing is being recognized as an attractive alternative to help them lower CO2 emissions.
By localizing manufacturing with printing hubs, companies can distribute production so that products are built much closer to the end-user, returning jobs to OEM home markets, automating processes, and reducing both costs and CO2 output. In a 2014 report, MIT researchers predicted that 3D printing had the potential to cut total supply chain costs by about 50% to 90%, with the biggest savings coming from transportation as production shifts local.
The additive nature of 3D printing also produces far less material waste than the traditional subtractive methods of CNC, which can produce up to 95% excess material. It’s the difference between using the bare minimum material required, versus subtracting from an existing metal block. Metal printing additionally invites more advanced, environmentally friendly materials, such as the cobalt chromium ceramic alloy used to print a jet engine nozzle. This can help companies comply with regulations that will undoubtedly arise in coming years.
California has already banned carmakers from selling brake pads containing “more than trace amounts” of copper and other heavy metals, and has taken a lead on banning toxic materials that are expected to disproportionally affect metal injection molding (MIM).
Look Forward to More Control, Better Designs, Improved Efficiency
3D printing enables companies to be flexible with industrial design, which can help to minimize waste by consolidating many assembled parts and processes into one. This can lead to much more efficient designs that benefit both the planet and the end-user.
The Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association (AMGTA), a 2019-launched nonprofit promoting the environmental benefits of additive manufacturing, reports that one of its members, 3D printing company ExOne, has reduced material waste to less than 5% and is now delivering end-use products that are 30-40% lighter because of additive manufacturing. GE used metal 3D printers to reduce a turboprop engine from an 855-part assembly to the only 12-part Catalyst engine with improved power and fuel efficiency, according to an AMGTA white paper.
By tweaking designs online through platforms such as the 3DEO Manufacturing Cloud, companies can quickly scale production based on their exact needs, thus reducing wasted time and material in inventory. They can imagine innovative solutions to antiquated designs, create exotic new parts never before possible and be rewarded with a new sense of logistical freedom.
As we move through 2022, 3D metal printing will continue to revolutionize the supply chain for metal components on a scale not seen since the last industrial revolution.
Read the article on Machine Design here.