3D printing to get out of the Russian war

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Even in times of relative peace for some regions, supply chains can be strained by global events, as they are now by the pandemic and its continuing effects. But nothing creates more severe supply chain disruptions than war. The status quo will not solve such serious problems. What can IT do now to help reduce human suffering, counter supply shortages, and increase their business resilience?

Among the growing supply chain obstacles resulting from Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine are financial sanctions, closed airspaces, booby-trapped shipments and wartime aggression. Both sides in this conflict aim to disrupt the logistics of the other side. Previous supply chain management and business resilience plans are rendered powerless in the face of so much risk. They are simply not up to the willful destruction and intense reverberations of war.

In short, this situation calls for a massive rethinking of the structure of supply chains and their ecosystems rather than fine-tuning inventory and supply management technologies.

It begins with an abrupt farewell to the notion of just-in-time (JIT) sourcing strategies. Manufacturing process improvements from Six Sigma to JIT are invaluable studies in sleek efficiency and nearly flawless production, but these efforts no longer match today’s business reality.

For starters, just getting enough energy to move raw materials and finished products is a costly challenge that could soon come to an end. Shipping costs, according to Moody’s Analytics, soared 300% last year due to the pandemic, largely due to border and port closures. The scarcity of new shipping containers has added to costs and remains a problem for the foreseeable future. Now fuel prices are skyrocketing because of the war. But the problems facing supply chains do not stop there.

Global inflation, stagflation, recession?

Many industries beyond transportation are also seeing their costs skyrocket, not only because of global inflation (and perhaps the onset of stagflation and recession), but also because many products require refined additives for gas and oil in their production. Examples include rubber, preservatives, plastics and containers. The agricultural and medical fields will be severely hampered by shortages of gas and oil products. This is horrible considering that food and medicine are two industries that humanity cannot live without.

And these are just the birth pangs of what is to come if the brutal and unprovoked Russian war continues. May God help us all if this drags into World War III.

Meanwhile, countries and businesses around the world must do what they must to survive. Obviously, trying to fix or adapt traditional supply chains is only a temporary measure, only succeeding until calamity strikes a mode, a route, a factory, a border or a town next time.

The solution is clearly not to endlessly fix what is clearly broken and will stay over and over again if not permanently broken. That being the case, what else do we have in the toolbox that we can use to deliver the products the world needs?

Role of 3D printers

The answer is of course that we have 3D printers. And we know how to use them to print things.

Already houses are printed and inhabited all over the world. Here are examples from the United States, Mexico and China. Other buildings are also printed, from office buildings to apartment complexes. A wide variety of products are printed every day, from firearms and dentures to shoes and human organs.

But back to our current war-torn supply chain issues. We have already digitized much of the world. How important is it to send digital code to strategically placed printers rather than shipping finished products?

It is important to note that a fix for supply chains of this nature is not necessarily a straightforward undertaking. 3D printing has encountered obstacles, including:

  • An inability to cost-effectively produce large-scale products (in large numbers of units)
  • A lack of product and industry standards
  • A lack of legal protections such as product licensing
  • Unavailability or poor quality printing materials (inks)
  • Technical issues such as metal printing

However, at least some of these questions are already answered. On the one hand, industry and standards bodies are actively writing standards and producing product certifications.

For example, ASTM International, a global standards development organization, has many technical committees currently developing AM (3D printing) standards for many industries and points in the supply chain. ASTM also claimed that “3D printers prove useful in hard-to-reach places, such as military bases, the International Space Station, etc.”, which also seems to agree (at least in the concept) that 3D printers can be a viable alternative to supply chains when said chains have lost their connection to the status quo.

While 3D printing can struggle to scale to produce large numbers of units, it can certainly handle big jobs like printing a building. Additionally, Gartner stated that 3D printing offers “tremendous potential for industries that operate at scale, such as the oil and gas (O&G) sector.” Meanwhile, more and more better quality printing materials are becoming available. Additionally, manufacturers are finding that 3D printing is faster in limited runs, more flexible than traditional manufacturing, and can lead to lower production costs.

Using 3D printing to solve today’s supply problems may be more about replacing broken links in an existing supply chain rather than trying to replace it outright. Consider that PwC said in 2016 that “more than two-thirds of US manufacturers are already using 3D printing in some way”, which likely indicates that printers are key integrations into manufacturing processes, and do not replace them. Likewise, supply chain strategies such as “just-in-time” delivery of raw materials or inventory to meet production schedules can potentially be enhanced by the addition of strategically placed 3D printers to reinforce the supply and distribution to overcome obstacles such as those posed by war and pandemics.

Yes, moving from primarily subtractive manufacturing (the traditional method) to augmenting with large-scale, distributed additive manufacturing (3D printing) will be a huge challenge. But we already know that we can do this stuff. How many hard turns has IT made to keep the world running in innovative ways during the pandemic? Is not it?! What we did once, we can do again.

Ask yourself: Should we replace current supply chain models by sending digital code to strategically placed 3D printers for as many goods as possible?

And to all makers, tinkerers, and creators: how would you suggest businesses, industries, and even countries try out this new supply chain model?

Keep thinking my friends. Life is what we create it.

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