There is nothing like an unexpected global pandemic to stop a manufacturing supply chain in its tracks. It also became life-threatening, as centralized operations and long logistics bridges impacted the manufacturing of urgent items such as ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).
However, there is some good news. Some of those companies involved in next-generation additive manufacturing survived a little better, notably if they used cloud-based solutions.
One company at the forefront of additive manufacturing is U.S.-based Markforged. It developed software and materials that empower manufacturers through the cloud and a large fleet of cloud-based 3D printers.
Certainly, this is a vendor with a vested interest. But with that caveat, a thought leadership survey commissioned by the company and released this week showed how — as in many other areas — the pandemic has accelerated technological change.
3D manufacturing take two
Additive manufacturing represents a new industrial wave and produces perhaps 15% of all industrial parts. It utilizes modeling software and computer-aided design so that 3D printers can create complex objects, often from composite materials.
In supply chain terms, there is a virtual or digital inventory of intellectual property assets, which cuts the cost of maintaining a physical inventory. It also reduces wastage by cutting obsolescence and write-offs.
The cloud is key to storing the IP and digital assets and distributing them to manufacturers. It allows them to produce as close to on-demand as is possible.
There are significant differences between additive manufacturing and traditional approaches, even those which use 3D printers.
3D printing was innovative when first introduced. But in many operations, it is still tied to legacy processes rather than integrated with modern cloud-based platforms.
The traditional approach requires expensive equipment, a large space, and skilled staff. It relies on a traditional supply chain which, over 2020, was found wanting in terms of resilience.
In contrast, cloud-based additive printing could produce more rapidly and on-demand, changing process quickly because the IP is in the cloud and readily accessible.
Inefficient digital thread
Markforged surveyed a sample of additive manufacturers in Q3 of last year and found that while 23% scaled back production, the balance — or 73% —continued to produce with additive 3D printing technology. Almost one in five said that additive manufacturing had saved the business “a significant amount of time.”
The pandemic has shown that one of the advantages of additive printing is that the software and the hardware are adjacent to each other and are not isolated. Markforged calls it an “inefficient digital thread” in traditional manufacturing, where disparate solutions try to work together.
With cloud-based additive manufacturing, complex carbon fiber reinforced products can be printed continuously from a single browser tab. It empowers manufacturers to print production-grade parts at the point of need and respond to supply chain disruption.
The great manufacturing leap
COVID has shown the way forward for manufacturing. While it will take some time for most enterprises to transform, it is clear that digital technologies have a critical role in the future.
Under pressure from the disruptions, legacy technology and processes could not adapt fast enough to prevent disruption. Many of those that transformed were able to maintain business continuity.
Manufacturing is entering a dynamic new phase. And just as the cloud has transformed so many other industries, it has to have a revolutionary impact on manufacturing.
The cloud enables a whole next generation of “manufacturing as a service” companies that are leveraging online IP to reduce costs and make better products faster.
As with so many other things, it is ironic that it took a pandemic to deliver better clarity on this issue. Among all the tragedy and loss, let’s bank this one as a gain for the long term.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDO Trends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/alphaspirit