Skip to content

Additive Manufacturing and Supply-Chain Disruption

Todd Grimm
By Todd Grimm President, T.A. Grimm & Associates

Additive manufacturing (AM) offers the potential to transform supply chains to impart resilience in bad times and responsiveness in good times.

But the operative words are “potential” and “transform.” To turn potential into reality and radically change operations requires advanced preparation. Start working on the solution today, so it is ready when the need arises.

Since the pandemic set in, AM has been bandied about as an obvious solution, insinuating that problems can be solved easily, quickly, and effortlessly. Unless an organization has experience in serial production with AM, none of those words are fitting.

Rather than being a quick fix for disruption, AM needs to be viewed as a near-term solution, or a long-term strategy—one that is constructed before the supply chain breaks.

Now is the perfect time to work on this supply chain alternative. For most, the crisis caused by the pandemic has eased, and operating in a frantic, firefighting mode has ceased. There is time to work on long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes. Meanwhile, the pain of disruption is still fresh in the minds of stakeholders so the impetus to change is there, and the motivation is strong. If too much time is allowed to pass, distance from the situation can yield apathy toward the problem and sympathy for the status quo.

So, this is a good time to take a step back from the problem and ponder what going forward should look like. As you do so, rethink everything and be open to adjusting what success should be.

Everything should be considered a candidate for change, from business to cost models. The more the plan is married to the past norms and performance metrics, the less likely any meaningful transformation will occur.

With the need qualified and a high-level approach identified, move on to determine which at-risk components are good candidates for AM.

This is important for two reasons. First, except for a single-component product, it is unlikely that AM will be a viable option for all parts in the assembly. Since a partial fix won’t resolve product shortages, the balance of the at-risk parts needs to be addressed by either making them AM-viable or fixing the non-AM supply chain. Neither of these changes is a short-term task.

The second reason for identifying candidates at the beginning is that work can now begin to perfect the AM process and qualify the output. The shift from traditional manufacturing to AM can take months or years. Without advanced preparation, AM will not be an alternative manufacturing-ready solution when needed.

To minimize the lead time for AM preparedness, companies could consider an outsourcing approach. Yes, subcontracting production transfers control to a third party, but there are advantages. Collaborating with an AM-experienced contract manufacturer removes the time and effort needed for process development and knowledge acquisition. However, there will still be a need for process tuning specific to the desired components and part qualification, which takes time.

If subcontracting is of interest, less time is needed to implement the AM solution, but waiting until the supply chain breaks to select these partners is unwise for several reasons.

First, the contract manufacturer can offer guidance on the components best suited for AM and provide insights on design modifications to make other parts viable.

Second, if global disruptions are the trigger for action, countless companies will be approaching the supplier with the same need at the same time. So, select your partners now and foster a collaborative engagement to build out an alternative for the supply chain.

The pandemic, war, and logistics bottlenecks are a call to action, a wake-up call to the fragility of our global supply chains. Take these hard-learned lessons to heart and use them to impart meaningful change to your supply chain. If necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the father of transformation.

Start today to allow the advantages of AM to play a vital role in adapting and strengthening your supply chain to ensure future success.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.