How is 3D printing helping to onshore manufacturing?29 November 2022
[Image Credit: CHUTTERSNAP via. Unsplash]
The glittering promise of decreased costs and elevated profits that drove the post-80s boom in offshored manufacturing is beginning to fade. In 2022, the manufacturing scene is increasingly choosing to reshore operations once again.
Amidst the rubble left behind by the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that our current supply chain is in a constant state of vulnerability. It has become difficult to ignore how often offshoring’s disadvantages come to eclipse its benefits.
President Biden’s incentive to reinvest resilience into supply chains has, as a result, come at a meaningful time. With his signature stamped on ‘Executive Order 14005’ in his first week in office, sporting the official title ‘Ensuring the Future Is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers’, the wheels have been firmly set in motion. In particular, additive manufacturing has been pinpointed as a key technology by which this objective will reach fulfilment.
The Biden Administration has established support of ‘AM Forward’, a voluntary compact uniting large manufacturers towards the shared goal of supporting smaller manufacturing businesses to expand utilisation of 3D printing. But how exactly does this tie into the bigger picture of bringing manufacturing on the whole back to home shores?
In answer to this question, we’ve set out to unravel the specific modes by which additive manufacturing overrides the need to import externally manufactured goods from overseas. This technology is still in its early years of adoption; its prevalence is yet to reach its peak. Yet, the prospect of mass AM implementation – a possibility that could overturn the multitudinous problems facing our supply chains today – is not as far-fetched as it may initially seem.
Crisis Resilience, From Mild To Extreme
Industries across the board are still struggling to pick up the pieces that the COVID-19 pandemic has strewn.
The manufacturing sector, however, suffered an especially impactful blow, due notably to a large percentage of operations relying on foreign importation.
As reported in The White House’s article detailing the governmental move towards reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing, “outdated infrastructure and the COVID-19 pandemic have strained the capacity of the entire goods movement supply chain, resulting in unprecedented snarls in global freight and logistics supply chains”. From shipping container shortages to skyrocketing shipping costs, as the Bank of England reports, the centrality of offshoring in manufacturing operations quickly and fatally saw manufacturing operations turn sour.
Limited importation capacities due to COVID-19 took a painfully circular toll, with PPE shortages sparking panic quickly. Additive manufacturing, as was widely reported, rose to the task; 3D manufacturer Photocentric, for instance, was granted a contract with the UK government to print protective face shields exceeding quantities of 7.6 million in 2020.
Outside of this unique use-case, however, additive manufacturing skirts around many of the manufacturing logistics which jeopardised the sector during this crisis.
With a single machine hosting countless printing possibilities, there is a substantially reduced need to outsource goods from other countries with 3D printing, cutting transportation costs and significantly diminishing time-to-market. Supporting a wide and still expanding repertoire of materials, all the ingredients necessary for successful production lie right at our doorstep.
Beyond world-shaking crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, onshore additive manufacturing counters smaller-scale business hiccups on a day to day basis. Manufacturers need not plan weeks in advance in anticipation of trade disputes or transportation delays, granting them a stronger grip on their individual operations.
With additive manufacturing, businesses can ensure greater certainty that operations will not lose a handle over efficiency, through thick and thin.
As mentioned briefly in the section preceding this, one of 3D printing’s core advantages is the expansiveness of its creative scope.
Taiwanese 3D printer manufacturer Atom, the mind behind the Atom 3.5 printer featured in our previous article, has published their ‘Atom Power Users Collection II’, an 84-page record of the products their printer has given life to. The item scope is impressively broad, ranging from Gaius Automotive’s application of Atom 3.5 towards vehicle prototyping (p. 20), to artists like ByeByeChuChu, Second and Cherng transforming 2D cartoon character designs into 3D models (p. 28). One technology can spark innumerable possibilities.
But how does this link back to AM’s reinforcement of onshoring initiatives? ‘Reshoring and Additive Manufacturing’, a research paper by Hamid Moradlou and Wendy L. Tate, pinpoints 3D printing’s responsiveness to product and market changes as one of its prominent assets. “Using digital files (3D CAD) in AM machines enables the manufacturers to modify the designs of the products,” they explain, meaning that “any product change can be adopted at any stage of the development process […] making [the] company more responsive” (p. 257).
A level of disconnect between businesses and their products is present in offshoring practices. Even if product modification is necessary, a company can expect this change to take place gradually as offshored factories make the shift. With 3D printing, implementing a change is simply a matter of updating a CAD file.
From being able to efficiently alter iterations of a singular product, from producing diverse catalogues of products on a small set of machines, AM ebbs and flows along with the market. Indeed, as the demand for customised products expands, product disparity is becoming more and more common, an occurrence that businesses should come to expect.
Where additive manufacturing is fit to this task, offshoring methods simply would not be suitable, unable to undergo the significant process alterations needed to adapt to product revisions time and time again.
Printing On Demand
Branching off from the design flexibility, additive manufacturing bolsters market responsiveness in another way: its on-demand production style.
Offshoring, as this article has endeavoured to impress so far, necessitates extensive production planning, in large part due to the unpredictability of transport and trade relations.
Gavin Smith, Head of Manufacturing at Plextek, explains in his article for The Manufacturer that bringing manufacturing to home shores allows businesses to better forecast their production requirements and improve their responsiveness to market changes. With offshoring, he writes, you “would not need to cater for six weeks at sea, which directly impacts the value of inventory you need to secure ahead of time”.
As expressed by Smith, companies relying on offshored production are faced with a choice where market-shifts are concerned. The favourable option is to waste valuable space on stocking inventory, arming themselves against sudden demand spikes. No business wants to find themselves tearing their hair out when they haven’t ordered a necessary product from external suppliers in time, sinking them into the grey-zone of uncertain shipping times and jeopardising business success.
The speed at which onshored additive manufacturing technologies can bring products to market, however, overrides this key issue. Demand fluctuations can be adhered to with reduced prior planning; rather than weeks or months, requirements can be met within a matter of days.
Not only are companies saved from the helpless position offshoring can introduce, but space no longer needs to be reserved for stocking items when production can take place as and when is needed. There are many uses to which physical space can be put, from increasing operational capacity to opening up desk spaces for new employees. Whichever way a company is inclined, there is no doubt that extra space can be put to substantially profitable use.
Market responsiveness is an essential quality where business growth is sought; onshored additive manufacturing can enhance this in more ways than one.
Leaning Into Industry 4.0
Whilst this article has covered the current capacities of AM to support onshoring initiatives, there is exciting space for future technological growth.
As IIoT becomes increasingly prevalent in industrial spheres, with the advent of the ‘smart factory’ and technological advancements in AI & machine learning, the additive manufacturing scene is deeply interwoven into the fourth industrial revolution we are witnessing today.
The prospect of machine independence promises to monumentally reinforce supply chains. Streamlining production with greater efficiency than ever before, and softening the threat posed by human error, both automated and autonomous machinery could powerfully contribute towards solidifying home-shore production success. It is no wonder that Arnold Lander, writing for Engineering.com, states that “robotic printing technology will have an essential role in the smart manufacturing plants of the future”.
However, beyond machine aptitude, developments in manufacturing software are of equal importance. MES & workflow AM solution AMFG is taking on this vital role.
Offering an end-to-end solution with expanding automation capabilities, from instant quotation to automated part status update capacities, AMFG’s market-leading software is helping hundreds of companies to scale their AM operations. Such tools will be critical in the U.S’ move towards manufacturing independence.
Preparing Home Shores for Independence
Global unity has importantly driven overarching recovery from COVID-19’s catastrophic impact; continuing to work on harmonic connections will continue to be of strong importance. With this kept in mind, the inclination towards onshoring in manufacturing is delivering critical benefits where complications are currently abundant.
Additive manufacturing inhabits a prime position to underpin national movements towards reshoring manufacturing operations. Whilst locating AM’s strong points importantly allows its suitability for this purpose to be determined, it is similarly crucial to identify the technology’s current hindrances to reaching these goals.
In an article from The White House covering the governmental boost of additive manufacturing towards forwarding ‘Made in All of America’, several key barriers to its adoption are noted; interestingly, most of them revolve around uncertainty, on both customer and supplier ends.
Buyers may be less inclined to invest in 3D printed products, in turn discouraging company investment in machines, especially considering their traditionally hefty price-tags. Furthermore, a “lack of knowledge” is flagged up; even if money is placed on the table, machines will afford little benefit where technological know-how is lacking.
Fortunately, these complications are far from damning. AM is rapidly emerging from its shroud of mystery. No longer confined to the category of a ‘prototyping tool’, the sheer expanse of its applications is drawing attention industry-wide.
If unfamiliarity constitutes such a central setback to new businesses venturing into the AM space, then continued exposure over time will be critical in eroding such problems to insignificance. Fortunately, ‘exposure’ is precisely what additive manufacturing has been witnessing exponentially over the past few years.
Just two weeks ago, members from across the 3D printing sector united at the world’s biggest AM focused event: Formnext. Bursting with innovation, the breadth and depth of this convention is a symbol, if any, of additive manufacturing’s climbing eminence within the manufacturing world.
Enjoyed this? Check out our last article, ‘5 Fascinating Uses of Carbon Fibre in Additive Manufacturing’
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