How the pandemic prompts innovation in digital manufacturing

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COVID-19 has despatched ripples via provide chains internationally, and no business has been immune. On the similar time, demand for provides has spiked. And firms in every single place are struggling to maintain up.

Proto Labs Inc.—an ecommerce-based supplier of producing companies corresponding to 3D printing—lately surveyed 108 designers, engineers and provide chain managers in 12 industries to gauge their response to the pandemic and the way digital manufacturing can assist them survive COVID-19 and past. The outcomes present that the pandemic has prompted many producers to undertake trendy expertise to automate conventional manufacturing and industrial practices.

Bernie Henderson, director of procurement, Protolabs

“A very powerful takeaway right here is that that is the brand new regular,” says Bernie Henderson, director of procurement at Protolabs. “Individuals are altering how they work, and extra folks than ever are working from dwelling. With these dynamics, firms should embrace a extra digital world.”

Productiveness and provide chain disruptions

The survey report, “Product Improvement and the Provide Chain: Easy methods to Survive a Pandemic with Digital Advertising,” revealed that working remotely has created productiveness challenges for producers. 67% of respondents mentioned that greater than half of their employees was working from dwelling in June. Amongst that very same subgroup of respondents, 53% mentioned distant work was inflicting an absence of instruments wanted to be productive, and 52% mentioned their largest problem associated to distant work was coping with a discount in collaboration amongst groups.

Henderson says one other problem in the course of the pandemic has been the weak point COVID-19 uncovered within the conventional provide chain. “Throughout the conventional provide chain mannequin, firms are constructing stock into their provide chain—sourcing provides from world wide—to drive the uncooked materials prices down,” she says. “On the planet of pace, that doesn’t actually work—and it ties up money circulation.”

The survey confirmed that almost three-quarters of respondents skilled provider delays in the course of the pandemic, and on the similar time, 56% noticed a shift in demand. In response to Henderson, pace, high quality and reliability are probably the most important advantages firms can acquire from their suppliers. With suppliers not with the ability to ship on that promise—at a time when it’s extra vital than ever—that conventional provide chain mannequin failed for a lot of firms.

COVID pressures result in innovation

“COVID-19 uncovered the necessity for manufacturing to shore up assets now, however the firms that thrive sooner or later will take the teachings discovered throughout this disaster to construct agile, resilient and trendy provide chains that spurt innovation,” Protolabs says within the survey report. “Digital manufacturing offers that vital pace and adaptability.”

The Protolabs report cites a number of instances of firms that used digital manufacturing companies this yr to cope with disrupted provide chains.

For instance:

  • Breathe99, a producer of B-1 respiration masks used for defense from such widespread issues as pollen and dirt, used 3D printing to develop and manufacture new variations of its masks appropriate for defense from the coronavirus;
  • The Cleveland Clinic labored with Protolabs and injection molding via digital manufacturing to develop new “Excessive-Line” gear designed to let medical professionals work extra effectively and safely with intravenous therapies.
  • FOAM-iT, a producer of kit utilized in spreading disinfectants for industrial cleansing, labored with digital manufacturing to switch merchandise and sustain with surging demand as a few of its suppliers went off-line in the course of the pandemic.

Surviving—and thriving—with digital manufacturing

Many firms appear to be embracing these disruptions as a brand new regular, the survey signifies. 64% of respondents mentioned they don’t suppose provide chain threat will change for not less than one other three months, and greater than half don’t suppose stock will probably be at extra predictable ranges for not less than three extra months.

Nonetheless, many see a shiny future forward. 86% of respondents mentioned they’re optimistic about the way forward for their enterprise, and two-thirds mentioned COVID-19 has uncovered areas for innovation. Moreover, 82% say they count on to see an uptick in new product growth by the top of the yr whereas 30% consider innovation is already on the rise.

Whereas conventional provide chain technique was about discovering the most affordable components wherever attainable, some producers acknowledge the failings of that mannequin. And plenty of are actually investing in digital manufacturing to construct agile, resilient and trendy provide chains that may defend them towards each the brand new and ongoing crises world wide.

The provision chain of the long run

In response to the survey, COVID-19 has underscored the significance of constructing a provide chain that’s future-proof. However there are some vital classes producers ought to contemplate when leveraging this chance.

They need to plan for altering situations within the provide chain and the flexibility to shortly adapt. They need to totally analysis their provide chain and establish weaknesses. Utilizing regional suppliers can also be a great way for firms to keep away from world disruptions. “Protolabs, for instance, is a world supplier with regional suppliers,” Henderson says. “That helps us preserve our provide for our prospects once they want it.”

On-demand manufacturing is one other attribute of a contemporary provide chain. When demand will increase, provides will be produced shortly, which helps firms navigate market volatility in addition to preserve stock and warehouse prices low.

Supporting mass customization

A mass customization method may also help provide chains and mitigate disruptions. Whereas mass manufacturing was the norm, mass customization is altering how producers should react to market calls for. On-demand manufacturing has the digital capability and speedy functionality to fulfill these mass customization wants.

And at last, the flexibility to behave shortly in occasions of change can assist firms reduce disruptions. Leveraging the assistance of a digital producer that may provide dependable, quick lead occasions will assist firms reply to market calls for in addition to uncertainty within the provide chain.

However to actually undertake an agile, resilient and trendy provide chain mannequin, Henderson says firms want to begin by rethinking their key metrics. “Certain, it’s at all times vital to have a look at income and bottom-line profitability. However as they modify how they function, key metrics ought to change with it,” she says. “And constantly pondering via what these metrics are is what is going to finally drive habits.”

Cate Flahardy is a Chicago-based freelance journalist overlaying enterprise and expertise.

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