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By Ferdie Bruijnen, Vice President of Supply Chain Operations and On Demand Manufacturing at 3D Systems

This is part two of a longer conversation about the role of additive manufacturing (AM) in supply chain assurance. In part one, I shared short-term tactical solutions to alleviate some of the burdens of unanticipated supply chain disruptions. In this installment, I’ll take a step back and look at AM as a strategic choice for assurance of supply, enabling greater in-house manufacturing agility through direct digital production. We’ll reserve the topic of using additive for indirect manufacturing for another time.

With the global Coronavirus pandemic, we are in an unprecedented situation with far-reaching impacts. Beyond the immediate concern of getting through this situation, we also have to learn from it, and a big lesson for many is the critical role of preparation.

3D Systems On Demand facility for direct digital production using additive manufacturing

Companies that have considered and planned for additive manufacturing will be able to pivot quickly and effectively in the face of supply chain disruptions.

How can additive manufacturing support my supply chain strategy?

The role of AM has evolved over the years as both AM technologies and materials have advanced beyond prototyping. Part quality, print speed, material properties, and overall system costs have all improved to make direct production with additive manufacturing a reality. This shift makes it possible to integrate AM into your supply chain as a strategy to reduce the impacts of isolated or global supply chain disruptions.

In my view, companies have two options. The first is to be AM-ready by planning for AM as a production alternative if the need to pivot arises. Services like On Demand manufacturing can take the friction out of this process by enabling you to outsource AM fulfillment and only get parts on an as-needed basis. The second option is to embrace AM fully and transition to all-additive production.

Whichever camp you may fall into, there is a basic and important point about additive manufacturing I would like to flag, which is that it is different from traditional manufacturing. The same is true of additive materials. Fortunately, different only means different. It is not a value statement, simply an observation. Rarely will an additive material match all the physical properties of an injection molded plastic, but it doesn’t really need to. It only needs to meet the needs of the application, and with the newer materials, it can. In fact, in a wide variety of cases, additive materials can now serve the same applications that were once reserved for traditional processes. All that is required is a separate qualification process for additive.

For any company that wants to transition to additive either partially or fully, testing and verification of AM materials and processes for the application in question will be part of getting set up. Although more dramatic at the outset, a full transition to additive enables companies to tap into the benefits of additive manufacturing on a deeper level. The dental industry does this and takes advantage of the opportunity for mass customization through the fact that there is no cost associated with unique geometries. For companies that want to keep additive in their back pocket as a bridge or alternative production option, commitment to a parallel qualification process is necessary so they can truly switch to AM when needed.

Whichever option better matches your situation, companies that have considered and planned for additive will be able to pivot faster and more effectively in response to disruption than companies that are strapped by conventional supply chains and logistics. More flexibility in access to parts and qualified production methods means greater security.

Stacked Builds on Figure 4
Part quality, print speed, material properties, and overall system costs have all improved to make direct production with additive manufacturing a reality.

When does additive manufacturing make sense?

On the production side of things, I see three main categories where AM is an excellent strategic match:

  • For anybody doing low to medium production volumes. The lack of tooling involved makes AM great for these batch sizes. Services like On Demand can also help with capacity;
  • Within businesses with complex supply chains or limited suppliers for particular component. Safeguarding your supply with an alternative approach is the definition of supply chain assurance;
  • Where time-to-market is essential.

The easiest way to transition to additive manufacturing

In terms of how to get started with additive, the hurdles are not as high as many anticipate – you just need to know where to find the right resources. As the originators of 3D printing and leading innovators in the industry, 3D Systems has a wealth of expertise across all aspects of implementation, from designing for additive, to material choice, to how to qualify parts and scale for production. This expertise can be found throughout the company, and is prominently featured at our global CICs, or Customer Innovation Centers.

Our advanced applications team is here to help you transition into additive by finding out what your goal is, and connecting you with strategies and solutions to reach that goal. We can help you know what technologies to look at, what materials match your performance requirements, and what design modifications could increase final function, production processes, and so on. Our experts are able to provide in depth knowledge for both metal and plastic AM, and can help to bridge the knowledge gap inherent to bringing on a new process.

Reach out to us with any questions. We’re happy to help.