Comment of the Week: 3D Printing vs Global Production

By on March 17th, 2020 in comment

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The 3D printed HRE3D+ metal wheel [Source: Fabbaloo]

The 3D printed HRE3D+ metal wheel [Source: Fabbaloo]

This week’s comment comes from reader Craig Miller, who believes there may be an opening for 3D printing to fill in for lost production. 

Miller commented in detail on our story last week in which we interviewed a 3D printer manufacturer in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. This company, Roboze, has significantly adjusted their internal and external working protocols to keep doing business during the crisis. 

Miller says: 

“As this is written the coronavirus has disrupted the world supply chain. This could bring domestic manufacturing to a full stop in some instances. Why?

I will use domestic auto manufacturing as an example. Worldwide auto parts sales in 2018 totaled US$412.1B. A significant percentage of those parts were exported from the part manufacturing country and imported by the final product manufacturing country. To put that in perspective, 48.3% of those auto parts were made in Europe, with Germany dominating. Asia came in second at 29.3%. North America produced 21%, although taken as individual countries, America was second behind Germany. I expected China to be in the top three.

The point is, when cars are made in America the parts come from North America and multiple exporting nations. For example, the aluminum wheels on my, made in America, Mustang GT came from China. If that specific part’s supply chain had gotten cut off, well, you can’t roll a car out of the factory without wheels. Last week I talked to an executive of Shelby American and they can’t get a Ford Pickup truck model because of guess what? Chinese made aluminum wheels. The lack of availability of a single part can shut down an assembly line in every type of factory.

As this is written China, South Korea, Japan, and Italy are countries where the coronavirus has or most assuredly will disrupt manufacturing for many industries. As this is written Fortune magazine reported, “Nearly 75% of companies are seeing capacity disruptions in their supply chains as a result of coronavirus-related transportation restrictions”, according to an Institute for Supply Management survey published Wednesday.

Advantage of Domestic AM vs Globalized Sourcing of Parts

In the past two years AM technology has advanced dramatically and 2020 is shaping up to be a breakout year. We are looking at AM equipment purchases that will allow our company’s AM to dramatically expand the quality, durability, quantity, diversity, and competitive pricing for end-use products. We will be able to produce products made from almost every available thermoplastic and metal. We will then have the capability to produce these products in quantities and sizes never before thought possible. As an example, one printer can produce a wide range of metals with an X-axis up to 31.5” or 800mm. Another can produce thermoplastics with a Z axis up to 14’ or 4.25 meters. And both these printers print with detail better than 50 μm.

By the 3rd quarter of 2020 with the proper funding we will have the ability to produce and replace imported thermoplastic and metal parts that are no longer subject to disruption in the global supply chain.

Some of the advantages of domestic AM:

Production can be located near manufacturers

Does not require a typical production line in a large manufacturing facility, but can be distributed into multiple smaller shops

Manufacturing can begin with a small initial start-up investment and ramped up rapidly as justified by demand. The ramp-up can be funded by borrowing against purchase orders

Capacity can be ramped up incrementally because AM is infinitely scalable. AM has begun with one or two AM printers and evolved to over 30

AM parts can be designed and produced that are superior to parts made with traditional manufacturing. They can be made lighter, stronger, and more visually appealing.

AM can be used to support traditional manufacturing by producing custom tools, molds, jigs, and fixtures. A tool steel injection mold made with AM can be produced in less than a week, rather than two months for traditional tool-steel molds. It can be sold at a profit for a small fraction of the cost of a traditionally manufactured mold.

AM, by its nature, is significantly automated. Even none automated post-production and finishing tasks can also automated. This all leads to dramatically reducing labor costs. It was those labor costs that lead to the trend of off-shoring domestic manufacturing. The good news is this automation will result in reversing that trend. The bad news is it will not have a dramatic effect of bringing back the number of manufacturing jobs that were lost of off-shoring.

AM can begin the gradual transition to restoring domestic manufacturing.”

That’s a very extensive comment, and I thank Miller greatly for taking the time to provide it. 

Is he correct? I think he may be on to something, although there are significant challenges in simply reverting to domestic AM production. The key barriers I see are: 

  • The cost of production using 3D printing / AM is still above traditional manufacturing. And it takes a lot longer to produce each unit, too. 

  • The designs for the targeted parts may be owned by the supplying company, and if they are not willing to provide them to a domestic AM operation, then not much can happen. However, it may be that some designs are indeed owned by the final manufacturer, making this more feasible. 

Additive Manufacturing After The Crisis

My thought is that we may see a slight variation of this concept implemented after the crisis subsides. If you are old enough to recall, there were quite a few changes that occurred after 9/11.

One of the key changes was one of decentralization of data (i.e. keeping more than one copy) and effective and detailed disaster recovery plans. No one wanted to be caught without a plan afterwards, so everyone made them. 

The current crisis may result in something similar: an “emergency generic manufacturing capacity”. Imagine a manufacturer that has multiple suppliers worldwide on which they depend for the flow of parts. The manufacturer does not know which supplier may fall or when that may take place. Thus they cannot build an identical traditional manufacturing line, because they’d have to duplicate the work of all their suppliers. 

But they could make an AM production line.

3D printers are able to make many different types of parts on demand, as Miller says. A “generic” emergency factory could be something a larger company might invest in. 

There’s also the possibility of sharing such a facility with other major manufacturers do, in
the same way that recovery data centers are shared by those anticipating computer failures. 

I’m not sure yet how 3D printing could change after this crisis, but this is perhaps one of the ways. 

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!