In Coronavirus Uncertainty, 3D Printing Is a Potential Solution for Manufacturing

The impact of the COVID-19 virus has reached U.S. manufacturers by way of the supply chain. Here are several ways 3D printing could help.

Covid 19 - in China

The situation in China is beginning to have a ripple effect on manufacturing supply chains leading to other parts of the world. Many U.S. companies are already feeling some impact. In a survey of composites industry professionals in the United States conducted by Gardner Intelligence (research arm of our publisher Gardner Business Media) and sister publication CompositesWorld, nearly 60% reported some level of impact on procuring parts and materials just 12 weeks after the first reported case of illness.

All told, the slowdown in shipping may be the thing to have the most lasting impact on U.S. manufacturers and their customers.
Despite the challenges, the situation also presents a few silver linings for U.S. manufacturing. Here are three potential strategies for coping right now that could have an impact extended beyond that of the coronavirus:

1. Rethink the manufacturing process for needed parts.

The resources needed to make an injection molded part are the raw material and the tool. If completed parts cannot be transported and the mold is now inaccessible, one option might be to change how that part is made to make it possible to produce in the U.S. A 3D printer needs only the raw material and the part file, no tooling required. A component designed for a conventional process may not be reproducible as-is, but reworking a design for 3D printing may result in additional benefits like assembly consolidation and lightweighting. This may be a good time to explore additive manufacturing and potentially redesign an existing part, product or assembly.

2. Consider stop-gap measures.

If a mold is absolutely necessary, 3D printing could be a fast way to build a replacement in the U.S. and reshore manufacturing. We’ve reported on a number of companies that make injection mold tooling using metal 3D printing, but it’s also possible to 3D print plastic and composite molds suitable for short runs. Recreating tooling this way (or printing some parts directly) could help manufacturers bridge potential production gaps.

3. Start building a disaster recovery plan now.

Even if your business hasn’t been affected, the spread of coronavirus is a good reminder to plan ahead. Identify the weak points in your supply chain, and create strategies to mitigate them. “De-risk” operations where practical, perhaps by reshoring production or distributing it among more than one location. Digitize as much as possible for flexibility in a future crisis. Build up a network of backup suppliers before you need them.


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