It seems a no-brainer to adopt digital supply chains, but they carry risks that are untenable if not eliminated. For example, how do big brands seize such opportunities while maintaining part consistency and quality and protecting their intellectual property (IP) – and ultimately upholding brand integrity?
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on the opportunities presented by 3D printing/additive manufacturing (AM), including the possibilities around virtual inventories and on-demand manufacturing. These advantages can deliver cost-savings, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers, without the need for huge investments. As we’ve seen, the weak link in any supply chain is maintaining and replenishing the physical inventory – an enormously expensive task.
It’s easy to see how a virtual inventory model enabled by additive manufacturing, e.g. for spare parts, offers many benefits to brands and their customers. First of all, it provides substantial cost savings by removing the cost of physical inventory and logistics.
But that is just the beginning.
Manufacturers may offer too many parts to hold in a physical inventory. A failure in the supply chain can, very quickly, lead to supplies running out (as we saw with COVID-19 and, ventilator parts). The ability to quickly 3D print an ‘emergency’ spare part and get it to the customer so they’re back up and running presents an immediate win-win. The manufacturer can solve the customer’s problem (and charge a premium price for doing so) and the customer receives a part in a few days, as opposed to a few weeks, resulting in minimal negative impact.
The Importance of IP
However, simply moving to virtual inventory and a wider digital supply chain creates serious potential risks. Virtual inventories hold the brand’s digital assets which need to be secured with IP Protection. Otherwise the file can be intercepted, and the part becomes vulnerable to change or leakage, creating a direct threat to the brand’s reputation.
Another risk is the threat to part consistency and quality. This could potentially lead to the part being produced in a sub-standard or incompatible way than it should be to perform to expectations. Additive Manufacturing is susceptible to production inconsistencies that can occur unintentionally due to human error.
For example, the wrong material could inadvertently get loaded onto a 3D printer, or the settings on that printer accidentally mis-set. If such an eventuality does arise, then it could potentially be a company’s reputation ruined or its brand threatened – something no business in the world would welcome. Ensuring repeatability is therefore key – i.e. making sure the part is produced in exactly the same way regardless of where or how many times it is produced.
Alongside ensuring the correct part is printed in the correct way, there is the issue of quantity. Once a company moves to a digital or virtual inventory, it needs to ensure that the digital files/assets can’t simply be printed without limits or without tracking and reporting. Imagine an aerospace company that has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in developing a part for an aircraft. What would happen if this part were accessed and printed, not only in the wrong material, but also in large quantities?
It would be catastrophic.
I find it incredible that, even with major global brands employing sophisticated processes, if an employee wants to print an extra item, then nobody will ever know. Now imagine that the part is accessed and printed by an outside supplier’s employee. The outcome would be much worse.
These are critical issues that large companies worry about. At the end of the day, regardless of whether such scenarios arise by accident or due to malice, brands cannot afford to produce defective parts that will ultimately fail. Even if those parts are being produced via an intermediary, it’s ultimately the brand itself that is at risk.
The good news for companies seeking to use AM and to enjoy the benefits of on-demand manufacturing or virtual inventories is that that there are Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution providers who have developed automatic and seamless mechanisms to address these issues.
Even better, the issues mentioned above can be avoided with minimal disruption – e.g. no installations and no change in procurement policies. This is crucial, because most procurement managers are not actually bothered about whether a part is produced using AM or injection molding; to them it’s irrelevant. They just want to be able to order it on their ERP system like any other part.
Ensuring that there is zero change from a procurement or policies perspective is paramount for adoption. If we were to approach global manufacturers and inform them that these processes would need to change, they wouldn’t listen. And rightfully so. To provide a seamless end-to-end solution, it is essential that AM ecosystem vendors are able to integrate with each other and with customers’ existing systems. This is especially important when using AM to produce parts in large quantities.
To scale quantities with AM raises the very issues outlined above, but that shouldn’t stop companies from enjoying key benefits like cost-savings, high availability of parts, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers. With the correct SaaS solution in place, these benefits are achievable while protecting the company’s manufacturing know-how and designs – and ultimately its brand image and reputation.
Lee-Bath Nelson is the co-founder/VP of Business at LEO Lane, and can be reached at email@example.com