Global supply chain issues in 2022: from travel bans to trade wars

Many companies have in the past moved their production to distant countries with cheap labour, optimizing the supply chain so that manufactured parts are shipped to the client. From travel bans to never-ending trade wars and fees, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the global supply chain and its interconnectedness. Distributed manufacturing is changing this by enabling the manufacturing of parts close to the place of use, reducing travel time, environmental impacts, and costs.

Additive Manufacturing (AM), also called 3D printing, is playing a big role in this by allowing greater flexibility in manufacturing processes, further reducing the dependency on global supply chains, and associated logistical costs. Local manufacturing has arisen in recent years for several reasons, not least of which the COVID-19 pandemic, which has catalyzed the spreading of this type of supply chain. Traditionally, western countries have focused on manufacturing low-volume, high-value products, therefore shifting the production of high-volume, low-value products to low-cost economies, with associated long and highly optimized supply chains.

The problem is that these traditional distribution networks rely on global geopolitical stability and therefore have poor resilience to disruptions such as sanctions imposed because of on-going trade disputes between countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it travel bans and severe disruptions to global supply chains and has exacerbated a lot of the pre-existing issues (as told by ScienceDirect in this article on Exploring Alternative Supply Chains and Distributed Manufacturing in Response to COVID-19), as demonstrated by 35% of manufacturers reporting disturbances due to the virus. All these aspects combined have led manufacturers to look for simpler, shorter supply chains that are more resistant to global disruptions and that can manufacture more customized parts, thus the result is the rise distributed or localized manufacturing.

What is manufacturing distribution?

Distributed manufacturing (also known as distributed production, local manufacturing, or decentralized manufacturing) is a form of decentralized manufacturing defined as the production of parts close to the source of need by leveraging localized production facilities that are connected to each other via online technologies and efficient communication systems. This means that in local manufacturing, both component manufacturing and assembly are performed in proximity of the place of need using different suppliers and manufacturing plants, which is where the term distributed comes from.

Centralized vs decentralized manufacturing: how outsourcing is changing the distribution of manufacturing

The trend for several years now has been to move from a centralized form of manufacturing to a distributed or decentralized manufacturing. The two forms of manufacturing are very different.

  • Distributed manufacturing makes use of local manufacturing to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and tailor the produced parts to the local tastes and customs;
  • In centralized industrial manufacturing, raw materials, components, and final products are typically manufactured in a few centralized plants located in low-cost countries. Thousands of identical parts are made and then shipped around the world where needed. Final assembly often takes place close to the place of need and in some cases the products are adapted to the tastes of the local market.

Advantages and disadvantages of centralized and decentralized manufacturing

There are advantages and disadvantages to both but, like previously mentioned, the trend has been to move from centralized to distributed:

  • Centralized manufacturing is better for mass production of identical parts since the individual prices significantly drop thanks to economies of scale. The disadvantage of centralized manufacturing is that this is tied to a few manufacturing plants and the production lines are not appropriate for low-volume, customized parts;
  • Distributed manufacturing, on the other hand, is more suited to the manufacturing of low-volume, mass-customized parts at a low price. Since goods are manufactured close to the point of need, the manufacturer can better personalize the products to better suit the tastes and needs of the client. Additive manufacturing is an ideal form of manufacturing to produce customized parts and so is ideally suited for distributed manufacturing.

Advantages and disadvantages of distributed manufacturing

Distributed manufacturing has many advantages and can result in savings in the order of 90% or more for products ranging from medical supplies to aircraft parts to tooling. Here are the advantages of distributed manufacturing:

  • distributed manufacturing greatly reduces the environmental impact of logistics: with local manufacturing communities are more likely to produce only the parts they need as opposed to ordering hundreds of parts using traditional manufacturing.  Combined with a much shorter supply chain, which therefore uses less fuel, distributed manufacturing has a much lower environmental impact compared to traditional manufacturing;
  • reduced initial investment: distributed manufacturing allows clients to order small batches of parts much more cheaply, opening new opportunities for prototypes and display models, as well as iterations of these. This allows a lot of versatility and to rapidly respond to market feedback and trends;
  • reduced logistical costs: the high tariffs incurred in cross-country supply chains are severely cut, if not eliminated, by distributed manufacturing. The cost of transportation is further reduced since the parts don’t have to be transported from ports/airports to a warehouse and then to the shop/client, they go directly from manufacturing to client, greatly shortening the supply chain;
  • higher quality and customized products: large volume manufacturing also tends to result in lower quality products, due to the need to reduce the price as much as possible, whereas local manufacturers often have decades of experience and expertise and will produce better products. Localized manufacturing is also more in tune with the tastes and customs of a particular area, thus producing parts that are exactly what the customer wants instead of standardized products;
  • investing in small and local businesses with distributed production: distributed manufacturing also better supports small local businesses by making small orders and prototyping affordable. Investing in small businesses also increases the skills of the local workforce;
  • distributed manufacturing reduces logistical risks: by distributing the work over a larger network of suppliers, the risk of a missed delivery in case of failure at one of manufacturing plants is greatly reduced. Using pre-existing suppliers and manufacturers also means that the manufacturing supply chain is more agile, allowing a company to better respond to the demand and supply of the market, something that is vital for staying competitive and surviving economic waves.

Disadvantages of distributed manufacturing

The disadvantages of distributed manufacturing are:

  • small production volumes: production volumes can be limited since small businesses don’t usually have the facilities to manufacture hundreds of thousands of parts quickly;
  • availability: not all raw materials and parts may be available locally and may still need to be acquired from specialized suppliers that are in other parts of the world.

Distributed manufacturing examples: the manufacturing of metal

Distributed manufacturing works by decentralizing production to local manufacturing facilities that are close to a product’s final place of use. There are many distributed manufacturing examples, let’s look at the manufacturing of brackets:

  • Manufacturing of brackets with centralized manufacturing: in centralized manufacturing the metal would be sourced from the cheapest location and then shipped to a plant, also located where labour costs are low. After cutting and assembly, the finished bracket is shipped to the client that ordered it, wherever they may be around the world. The client typically buys many parts in bulk to reduce the cost-per-part;
  • Manufacturing of brackets with distributed manufacturing: with distributed manufacturing, the bracket is ordered via a web portal that acts as a digital showroom of available models. It may also be possible for the client to upload a custom 3D model to the web portal. The company then sends the digital plans to a local manufacturing plant where the wood is cut, which is located close to the client. The parts can then be assembled in the same hub or sent to the customer to finish the job. The entire process takes place much closer to the final client, greatly reducing the lead time and costs.

Is 3D printing the future of manufacturing?

3D printing is playing a major role in enabling the spread of distributed manufacturing since with this technology, digital plans for a part can be sent to a local print shop and produced quickly and cheaply. The advantages of Additive Manufacturing are several compared to traditional manufacturing including increased design freedom, weight savings, high levels of customization, lower material waste, reduced complexity and part count, and reduced need for assembly. On top of that, while changing production runs in traditional manufacturing can take months, 3D printing can pivot to a new product from one print to the next, allowing for real time, short-run productions.

This is especially relevant because it greatly reduces the cost of small volume productions, allowing new opportunities in R&D, prototyping, and functional parts.

How can Roboze help in distributed manufacturing?

On top of the advantages of 3D printing, the Roboze ecosystem adds several more on top:

  • 3D Parts network: Having an established network of partners around the world, parts ordered through the Roboze 3D Parts portal are going to be manufactured in the facility that is closest to the location of need, thus shortening the lead time and reducing the logistical costs. The quality and repeatability of Roboze 3D printers guarantees high-quality, customized parts delivered in a short time and at a low cost no-matter where the manufacturing takes place around the globe;
  • On-demand manufacturing: By leveraging the 3D Parts network, companies can order parts on-demand and without the need to buy an industrial grade 3D printer. This also includes spare parts, greatly reducing the need to stock extras in case of breakdowns;
  • Metal replacement: Using high-performance thermo-polymers such as Helios™ PEEK 2005 and Carbon PEEK, heavy and costly metal parts can be replaced with light and cheap functional parts that can handle even the most extreme of environments. Thanks to their exceptional mechanical, thermal, and chemical properties, parts made with high-performance thermo-polymers can be used is a huge variety of applications, from the depths of space to the depths of the ocean, from down well applications to aircraft cabins to chemical plants to the racetrack;
  • Accurate and repeatable process: Thanks to the patented beltless system and several other technological advancements, Roboze has developed a technological ecosystem that guarantees accuracy, repeatability, and a high degree of process control for use with high-performance polymers and composite materials;
  • Minimized material waste: Thanks to the increased design freedom afforded by Roboze 3D printers, only the material strictly necessary for the manufacturing of the part is used, greatly reducing wastage and costs compared to traditional manufacturing. Roboze is also introducing its circular economy program that will allow customers to return end-of-life parts to be recycled into new printing material, reducing the price of the filament, and safeguarding the environment.
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Enea Sacco

Roboze Application & Training Engineer