Earlier in the pandemic, additive manufacturing helped companies like Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Siemens produce desperately needed personal protection equipment that was in short supply. In Italy, a ventilator manufacturer couldn’t keep up with demand for a critical valve that controls the flow of oxygen to a patient. That led an engineering startup to reverse engineer the part on a Friday and provide 100 3D-printed valves two days later on Sunday.
“This begs the question: could the company that produced the ventilators offer 3D printable parts (or digital assets that are 3D printable) every day or only at times of emergency without compromising its future business of selling parts?” wrote Lee-Bath Nelson, a software engineer, co-founder and vice president of business for Limited Edition Object (LEO) Lane, Tel Aviv, Israel, on her company’s blog.
The answer, of course, is yes, with some planning and use of 3D printing in an emergency, like GM did. “3D printing allowed us to react quickly to the need for face shields and get initial units to people on the front line almost immediately,” said Steve Hart, GM’s director of design fabrication operations, on the company’s website.
Nelson sees savvy companies preparing for the next supply chain disruption by digitizing parts for lifesaving devices like ventilators and those critical to the means of production that can be 3D printed quickly and used in an emergency.
“Think about if you have a production line and you have a part break,” she said in an interview. “If the production line stops, the cost is enormous.”
The pandemic, Brexit, trade wars, and the short supply of white goods in the U.S. led Nelson to conclude that the next disruption in supply chains is a matter of when, not if. When it happens, “There will be a difference between those who’ve prepared for it and those who haven’t,” Nelson said.
The idea is to leverage the advantages inherent to 3D printing. There’s no need to keep spare critical parts in stock in a warehouse as long as you have the CAD file in digital form and a 3D printer. Keep the needed part in digital form as long possible and print it close to where it’s needed. In this distributed manufacturing paradigm, it’s possible to reduce or eliminate shipping costs. “The more you can keep it digital, the more robust you are,” she said.
Some Caveats Apply
Nelson’s idea comes with cautions. Why would a manufacturer share its digital file? Its livelihood depends on selling parts. If it gives away the plans, what’s to keep others from producing the part? If they produce an inferior part and represent it as coming from the original manufacturer, it hurts that manufacturer’s reputation. They could also cut out the original manufacturer completely.
LEO Lane’s software protects intellectual property and 3D printing with encryption and more. Nelson declined to disclose what the “more” is for security reasons. The software also tracks every print made from the CAD file and automates the 3D printer settings associated with a CAD file. The file won’t print at any but the proper settings, ensuring consistency and repeatability.
The idea doesn’t eliminate the need for warehouse space altogether. The 3D printer feed stock has to be stored somewhere. But raw feed stock can be made into many different things that may be needed. The next time supply chains are interrupted, manufacturers who’ve prepared can switch over to their emergency plan to keep production humming and customers happy.
“In emergencies, the alternative cost (of not supplying the part) is much higher and being able to provide an emergency spare part, even at a premium, is important to customers and brands,” Nelson blogged