How 3D printing can help in the fight against the corona virus

3D printing can help shorten the supply chain, but is not a panacea.

We are at war against the coronavirus – COVID-19. In times of war, logistics and supply chains are crucial for success – and ours are so tight that they are beginning to break. 3D printing – which some say is the solution for everything – can give manufacturers the flexibility and resources needed to respond to all sorts of contingencies.

In the past, armies brought mobile metal smiths into battle to repair and replenish weapons and horses without relying on long and unreliable supply chains. Today, troops travel with mobile 3D printers. They create the parts they need on the spot in mobile stations. For example, the U.S. Navy uses a metal 3D printer to produce vehicle and weapon parts in the Indo-Pacific region – a decision that frees up capacity. 

 

We can apply the same principle in times of crisis or supply shortages. Manufacturers can leverage the power of a distributed 3D digital printer network to reduce the shortage of much-needed medical equipment and consumables that are out of stock.

But the answer is not to print everything. The biggest opportunity is to use the modern 3D printer as a means to print the missing part, to quickly move a production line from making perfumes to making hand sanitizers, to bring a blocked factory on line, or to produce the missing valve urgently needed for a ventilator.

For example, Ford and General Motors GM have indicated that they may be able to manufacture ventilators if needed. In such a situation, 3D printers could easily allow automakers to change production lines to start producing different parts and components, as opposed to what is normally produced on an automotive line.

Supply Change Management

High volume compared to small batches
For several decades, experts have been pointing to 3D printing as a solution to the problems of our suppliers. 3D printing has been used by in the automotive and aerospace industries, to the mass production of toys in our homes. But this is all hype and not reality. Modern, conventional manufacturing is extremely good at producing large quantities of standardized and cost-effective parts. But it quickly reaches its limits when responsive solutions are required. In wartime, responsiveness is the difference between life and death.

For example, Micro-X, an Australian manufacturer of x-ray machines, is using 3D printing to speed up production of its portable, lightweight x-ray machines to meet increased orders from hospitals with coronavirus patients. Because Micro-X can rely on its 3D printers to produce lightweight parts, it can produce the required components much faster than traditional methods and scale in quantity to meet requirements.

3D printing is more cost-effective than traditional small-batch manufacturing. It eliminates the distance between design and production, so manufacturers don’t have to rely on outside suppliers who may take weeks to deliver two or three custom parts. Instead, they can print them in hours.

Above all, availability and flexibility, especially in the event of supply bottlenecks, far outweigh the cost factor when demand is unexpectedly high and supply is low.

We need to be agile and flexible to win this war, and 3D printing is the most flexible tool we have – the digital forge that we can bring to the front of the current battle. Ideas can be turned into reality quickly. It gives organizations the ability to think creatively and respond quickly. When integrated into innovation and problem-solving cultures, it can unlock unlimited opportunities for development teams and create cost and time savings for any organization. And when we face a global crisis, we can quickly test prototypes and create the tool a hospital needs – immediately.

Readiness means more than being ready for what you can see coming. It means having the flexibility and resources needed to meet any contingencies that may arise next.

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