Educating the sceptical organizations on how to prepare for AM, integrate it into their existing processes, and be successful is the burden we bear as an industry until AM reaches a tipping point where it becomes integrated, accepted and relied upon.
We may have reached just such a tipping point. Our current COVID-19 crisis is a warning shot; a dry-run for a similar, future crisis that will happen. While our medical community fights on the frontline trying to combat and hopefully prevent the spread of this pandemic, we in the manufacturing world are providing the weapons, and empowering them to stay safe and treat those affected by the virus.
But as is widely reported, there are gaps in our ability to respond with the hardware needed to assist the medical community. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and respirators have been in the spotlight. This battle with COVID-19 places a burning spotlight on how can we manufacture more of what is most important. The answers are available, but the manufacturing world was not ready. It is an “us” problem.
The old way to be prepared would be massive warehouses filled with equipment and parts “just in case” a crisis should occur. It is a wasteful, expensive approach to a crisis that may or may not ever happen. What AM brings is digital inventory: parts or products that can be made as-needed, when-needed, and meeting the requirements to fill production gaps while older, traditional production processes get ramped-up.
Currently, while people and organizations with 3D-printing capabilities are plentiful and have done admirably given the situation, we have to wonder if the stress of the lack of equipment and parts could have been averted. At least averted in the sense of our ability to nearly instantaneously respond by distributing validated digital files to a massive network of industrial 3D-printers able to churn out the applications and equipment needed.
The next crisis is going to happen. Maybe it will be a transportation industry disruption. Or utilities, or defense, or another humanitarian or medical crisis. We cannot possibly predict, but it not hyperbole to say that industrial 3D printing reduces risk. Will, what we as an AM community have preached for years, finally be better received by manufacturing organizations and governments? The sermon usually includes mass customization, production on-demand, spares on-demand, localized sourcing, simplified logistics and digital supply chains and sustainable and efficient production.
Additive manufacturing cannot cure the virus, but it is an essential cog in the machine needed to battle it. But, our world of supply chains and complex logistics that features far-flung mega-factories just received a wake-up call. While we deal with our current crisis, it’s time to get real about where AM fits into manufacturing both in times of crisis, and times of normality.
As traditional manufacturing now catches up to the crisis, will AM fade into the background again as a “nice to have” or ancillary advanced manufacturing technology? Or once this crisis passes, is it time to rethink our approach to responding to the next crisis? AM would not have prevented COVID-19, but a mature AM environment would certainly have changed how we responded.