COVID-19 is a great tragedy for millions of people around the world and a serious economic problem. What’s more, at the moment no one has any idea whether the current situation is just the beginning, epicenter or finish of the crisis, but one thing is certain beyond any doubt – when the pandemic ends and the world returns to relative normality, nothing will be the same. Just a few weeks of confusion in the implementation of current orders and supply chains made everyone aware that the foundations on which they based their businesses are as fragile as rusks or rice breads. Everything will change because nobody can afford it to happen again.

Whether we like it or not – COVID-19 has two dimensions: human and economic. In the first there is nothing to discuss – people get sick, suffer, and some of them die. Because of the crisis that will happen sooner or later, many people will lose their jobs and fall into poverty. It is possible that the problems can be suppressed in the bud and there will be relatively few victims – but it is also possible that we will have a scenario from 12 years ago and thousands of people will end up on the streets? In the human dimension, the COVID-19 pandemic is a great misfortune.

However, when we look at the matter from an economic and business point of view, nothing is so obvious. Certainly many companies will not survive, but at the same time for many others the COVID-19 pandemic and related market consequences will be a great opportunity. We can already see a huge increase in interest in the offer of companies providing remote communication tools – platforms for creating webinars, e-conferences and e-trainings. In the long run, the importance of e-commerce will increase even more, and logistics and freight forwarding will be successively automated (Amazon’s idea of ​​package delivery using drones no longer seems as funny as it used to be…).

In the case of the manufacturing industry, the matter is more complex and there will be many transformations. The Electronic Engineering Times published a few days ago an article describing the changes that must take place in the global economy after harnessing the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. There are 12 points in it – some are quite general, so let me focus only on those most important in my opinion; interested I refer to the source. They are also recommendations articulated by people from the so-called “old school”…

“The old school business” advises:

Diversify your risk: never rely on one supplier

The consolidation process has taken place over the past few years – companies merged or larger entities took over smaller ones. As a result, several large players remained on the market, and small and medium-sized companies dropped out of the market or were absorbed by others. When an outbreak of coronavirus broke out in China, it turned out that certain components could only be obtained at a factory that had just closed. This disturbed the entire supply chain, resulting in the production and sale of many products. The solution is to look for many different suppliers of the same parts or to support the development of new ones.

Create buffer stocks

Thanks to very efficient logistics, companies began to order components with a relatively small allowance. This approach brutally took revenge in February this year… Experts cited by EE Times encourage to change this strategy and create large warehouse slopes in the future “just in case”.

Can you manufacture things closer to home?

One of the most important questions of recent weeks – is the production of things or key components necessary to produce them on another continent the best possible decision? Probably hardly anyone is aware that closing the factories for several weeks in selected regions of China is not the only source of problems with the collapse of the supply chain – the closing of the border by Russia and the temporary elimination of land transport are equally important. Cheap production of things in other countries, thousands of kilometers away, carries many risks that have now been painfully realized…

“The new school” and a great opportunity for additive technologies

For people who have been in contact with 3D printers for years, the above recommendations will seem as clichéd to some extent. Many of the problems described can be solved with the help of additive technologies – of course, not immediately, but in the long run, with the right approach, this is possible.

Distributed manufacturing

What is one of the basic disadvantages of 3D printing – the lack of scalability of the process and low efficiency in the context of mass production, may prove to be an advantage if we change the approach to it as such. Today, individual factories are commissioned to make things, the vast majority of which are located in China or neighboring Asian countries. If we started to manufacture them locally dispersed, differences in the prices of manufacturing individual components could be balanced by lower delivery costs and shorter time to market products. And even if the cost of production using 3D printers is still much higher, the question to be answered is – is this price still higher when compared with the effects of the current crisis?

Distributed production is one of the flagship arguments put forward by evangelists of 3D printing technology for years. It allows to reduce the risk of supply chain break in the event of problems on the part of a single supplier and to become independent of any forwarding problems (see closing the Russian-Chinese border). Instead of one large factory – we use a network of smaller contractors located in our country, or at least on our continent.

Of course, the above scenario is actually a gigantic organizational undertaking that requires a total change in the production management model. In addition, 3D printing has a number of its own technological limitations and in many areas it simply won’t work. Nevertheless, the situation we are in is a great moment to try to take on this challenge and start looking at it a little more seriously than before.

Spare parts on request

The problem that 3D printers could solve now is the matter of storing selected components. The prescription recommended by EE Times experts in the form of increasing inventory “for worse times”, is derived in a straight line from the old days when the production of things continued uninterrupted, until the implementation of plans created in isolation from economic reality. As in the case of distributed production, 3D printing gives ready solutions here – production of spare parts on demand by the production plants themselves or external entities located close to them. Importantly, a number of automotive concerns have been using this for several years, which in this way solve problems with the storage of parts for long-life cars (e.g. Russian Railway).

There are a number of immediate benefits to this:

  • reduction of production costs
  • reduction of logistics and forwarding costs
  • faster delivery time for parts that are not currently in stock.

The path to personalization – low production series of more diverse products

Product personalization is a challenge that manufacturers face regardless of the issue of additive technologies. As consumerism develops, people are no longer satisfied with having new things – they want them to be unique and one of a kind. For many products, this is impossible due to the specifics of series production. At a time when the industry would implement additive technologies on a larger scale than before, this issue would naturally come back as one of the benefits of using 3D printers in this area.

Summary

Traditional business and production are currently facing a great test – the future depends on how quickly the world manages to tame the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic? While in Europe the disease is just beginning to spread, the attention of the world should be focused on the US, because the future of the world’s largest economy will still depend on the virus in the coming months, as well as the issues that I raised in the article above. Changes will occur – they are inevitable. The question is in which direction will they go and who and how will they find themselves in the new reality …?

What specialists from additive technologies have been talking about for years has a chance to come true. The 3D printing industry faces a unique chance to provide ready-made solutions exactly when they are most needed and to prove that it is an equal partner as representatives of companies using traditional manufacturing methods. Will you manage to use it?

Paweł Ślusarczyk
CEO of 3D Printing Center. Has over 15 years' experience in buisiness, gained in IT, advertising and polygraphy. Part of 3D printing industry since 2013.

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