Why Should Companies Embrace Distributed Additive Manufacturing?15 March 2021
In recent decades, globalisation has been recognised as a defining, practically unstoppable force to which consumers and companies alike must adjust.
But today we’re seeing signs of a counter-trend – an emerging set of pressures that may slow or even reverse the rush to globalisation. This new trend is called distributed, localised production and it is one that businesses need to take seriously.
But before we talk about the benefits that make distributed manufacturing an attractive production model, let’s first define distributed manufacturing.
What is distributed manufacturing?
Also known as “decentralised manufacturing”, “local manufacturing”, “decentralised production”, distributed manufacturing can be thought of as the production of goods close to, or at the point of use.
Distributed manufacturing appeared in the limelight due to several reasons. Rising energy prices have dramatically increased the cost of long-haul shipping, while concern over climate change has turned a spotlight on its baleful environmental effects.
At the same time, the continuous trade wars and tariffs compromising supply chains worldwide urge manufacturers to move production processes nearer to the consumer.
Furthermore, localised manufacturing has grown as a strategy that has contributed to many manufacturers’ business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic when other business’ supply chains were disrupted.
It’s therefore not surprising that 52% of companies are looking into localised production in 2021, according to HP’s Digital Manufacturing Trends Report.
Evolving beyond traditional manufacturing
Distributed manufacturing is set to provide greater flexibility and agility compared to more established manufacturing models.
The current manufacturing landscape is based on the premise of identical, high-volume production. However, such structures are proving increasingly insufficient when faced with the ever-growing demand for customisation, faster turnaround times and more efficient supply chains.
The traditional approach to manufacturing sees raw materials sourced and products manufactured in large centralised factories. After production, the products are shipped to the end consumer, which may be thousands of kilometers away.
Distributed manufacturing, however, turns this approach on its head. It involves a digital network of decentralised production sites, spread across locations and connected by digital technology.
Decentralisation and proximity to consumers open the door to faster delivery, sustainability, customisation and support for regional markets.
While large-scale production will always dominate some segments of the value chain, distributed, small-scale local manufacturing has emerged to provide a sustainable alternative in how goods are produced and shipped.
One technology that will be instrumental in enabling the new model is additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing supports the growth of distributed production
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is one of the key technologies that facilitates distributed manufacturing, alongside the Internet of Things, robotics and data analytics.
In AM, the process of manufacturing a part is controlled by software, making it a highly digitised process. It involves creating a 3D model in CAD and then converting it into two-dimensional layers.
This data is then sent over to a 3D printer, which begins to print the part layer by layer, as specified by the file. Unlike conventional processes that rely on moulds or cutting tools, the only tool needed in AM is a 3D printer.
With 3D printing changing the way many goods are manufactured, here is how the technology is well-suited to drive the transition to distributed manufacturing:
Faster lead times
Additive manufacturing can accelerate lead time in two primary ways. One is by reducing the time to market by allowing for much faster prototyping and the other is by direct production of end-use parts.
Since AM doesn’t rely on long-to-produce moulds, the production can start right after the order is received, if there is capacity and materials are available. The AM production typically takes between a few hours and a few days, which is a world of difference from a typical lead time of weeks or months in injection moulding.
With additive manufacturing, there is a potential to reduce warehousing costs by switching to digital inventories.
Distributed manufacturing facilities can use a centralised virtual storage place for 3D designs, send data between facilities and produce a part when the customer needs it, bypassing the need to maintain a physical inventory.
Also read: 4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your Additive Manufacturing Operations
One of the biggest benefits of 3D printing is that it enables on-demand manufacturing. 3D printing, alongside distributed manufacturing, can help to replace an often inefficient “make-to-stock” with a “make-to-order” model, rethinking the entire concept of warehousing.
With AM, companies can produce parts in the exact quantities they need, without exposing parts to risks of being unsold or taking up space in a warehouse.
As a product is made on-demand, it can then be immediately shipped to the consumer, eliminating the need for storage and, therefore, reducing inventory costs.
Read also: How 3D Printing is Transforming the Spare Parts Industry
Putting distributed additive manufacturing into practice
A switch to distributed manufacturing will, of course, require a degree of adaptability to truly reap the benefits.
But how can you ensure that your company can adapt to the new model?
One way is by establishing a digital foundation, which underpins the shift to distributed additive manufacturing.
Such a system should enable fast and secured data management, connectivity (both across different facilities and within the shop floor), traceability and automation.
Without a system in place that can help coordinate orders, processes, machines and staff, it will be near impossible to create a consistent, reliable workflow.
The year 2020 has undeniably increased the urgency in embracing distributed manufacturing. In 2021, companies should start to rethink their long-term manufacturing strategies and consider the tools that will help them reap the benefits of the new manufacturing paradigm.
If you’d like to learn more about the digital solutions for distributed additive manufacturing, download our free resource and discover how you can lay the foundation that will fast-track the shift to distributed additive manufacturing.
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