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Engineering Futures: How 3D printing at scale can overcome modern supply chain challenges

Professional Engineering

The Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit-related trade delays and the Suez Canal blockage have all disrupted global supply chains in the last year – but 3D printing can help, says Yann Rageul (Credit: Shutterstock)
The Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit-related trade delays and the Suez Canal blockage have all disrupted global supply chains in the last year – but 3D printing can help, says Yann Rageul (Credit: Shutterstock)

It is difficult to overstate the challenges faced by global supply chains in the last year-and-a-half. The Covid-19 pandemic, new post-Brexit trade rules and the Suez Canal blockage all played a part in delaying or restricting deliveries, creating bottlenecks and shortages of parts.

Thankfully, says Yann Rageul, the challenges have also encouraged companies to consider new ways of working – and 3D printing could be an ideal candidate for overcoming further disruption.

We spoke to the Stratasys head of manufacturing in the EMEA and APAC regions ahead of his 19 July session on the topic, at our free Engineering Futures webinar series.  

How have supply chain issues affected manufacturing companies in the last year?

You have huge restrictions, and many, many companies have had issues with the supply chain. It's affecting everybody. Especially electronic components, there is a huge shortage. You saw some automotive companies, like JLR, stopping production because of a lack of electronic components.

From OEM to tier one suppliers, people are really starting to think: ‘Is it the right thing to have my product made so far from my customer? Should I look at alternative processes of manufacturing?’

People are looking at 3D printing being able to produce PPE, a lot of protective equipment for the NHS and other health organisations, and thinking: ‘If that worked for them, why could it not work for my industry?’

Where is a good place to start?

The first obvious thing to look at is your spare parts. Typically they are old, you don't know when you're going to need them, you need to store them in a warehouse. If you don't have them, then the lead time can be weeks or months, and after a certain period of time you may not even have the capability to manufacture them.

We see that often in the rail industry. A good example is trolleybuses, where the top arm is conducting electric currents, to charge and drive the bus. Italian company 3DnA had to 3D print some of the parts for the trolleybus arm because it couldn't find them anymore – the supplier wasn't there any longer. Spare part management is a critical issue.

How can software help integrate 3D printing processes?

You can actually create a digital inventory, so you don't have to store all those parts in a warehouse or place a book order. The problem with most suppliers is you have to buy maybe 500 parts, get them shipped in a container and then store them somewhere. It’s a few months before you can get this order delivered to you – a huge wait time, especially now.  

Some companies are starting to think: ‘Can I move into a digital inventory by scanning my parts and creating a virtual file, which I can then download and send to my printer on demand, so I don't have any delay?’

A good example is fused deposition modelling (FDM) extrusion technology at Siemens Mobility, which is moving into a digital inventory. They actually have a website where their customer can go and order, for instance, tramway armrests. This part will automatically be sent to the printer process and shipped to the customer. That's really a gamechanger, which we are starting to see more and more.

Yann Rageul will be speaking at the free Engineering Futures event on 19 July

Yann Rageul will be speaking at the free Engineering Futures webinar series

The other very important thing is the way the software works. For instance, if I’m in the UK and have a factory in Germany, how do you interface with that? You can centralise the design in one location, encrypt the files to the cloud, send it to the printer in Germany and have it printed.

We own GrabCAD, which is a huge software and a huge community of engineers, which enables you to really easily send jobs to the file, and data can be stored in the cloud. But there is also software encryption, which is really critical as well.

We also interface with third party software. So if you are using Siemens product lifecycle management (PLM) software, for instance, you can integrate through GrabCAD – you can place and store all your files into your PLM software, you don't have to put them on the cloud, and then you just use your PLM to send the file to the printer.

We can install an integrated printer as another asset, like your CNC machine, your injection moulding. The 3D printer is no longer in R&D. For us, the printer needs to be on the factory floor. That's a big change in the paradigm – until now, most people saw 3D printing as prototyping technology.

Can 3D printing provide the same capacity as conventional processes?

We’ve also launched new selective absorption fusion (SAF) technology, which is a gamechanger in terms of cost per part. There’s a shift from a few hundred to maybe 1,000 parts with FDM, to thousands or tens of thousands of parts that can be printed with SAF. Now we can reach much broader industry, maybe white goods or industrial machinery.

A part printed using SAF technology (Credit: Stratasys)

A part printed using SAF technology (Credit: Stratasys)

It’s also much more responsive – you can print many thousands of parts in the same time that it would take an order of injection moulded parts to arrive. Every single one can be different and customised to the customer’s needs as well.

Plus, let's say you have a design and you want to tweak it, you can do that within a couple of days. By the time you receive your injection mould, that's it, you're not going to send it back to be remanufactured and changed. With 3D printing you can combine geometries and improve the design. You have less trade off, and you can really focus on ‘What can I do here? What do I want to achieve?’

Can these ways of working help companies react better to supply chain disruption?

Completely, yes, they can be more reactive and adapt to the customer’s needs much faster as well. With any change in the market, they can launch new products – because you can not only use the technology for spare part production, you can use the same technology for prototyping, testing and production. It's very easy to shorten the time to market.

It gives them this kind of agile manufacturing capability that is not always achieved with a conventional process, because you have to design in one way and get prototypes done in another way. With injection moulding, for example, you may not be able to get your mould until you have really validated and finalised your design.

I see this as shortening the time to market. We’ve seen it already in automotive – compared to 20 years ago, the time to design and launch a car has shrunk significantly. I think additive manufacturing will really bring it to another level again.

To hear Yann speak more on this topic and to ask him questions directly, register for Engineering Futures here. The webinar series features sessions for a variety of inspiring speakers discussing thought-provoking topics. 


For more content like this sign up to our free webinar series – Engineering Futures.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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