Disruption for Supply chain resilience: the additive way

Most product businesses count on the prevalent shipping industry to come through for their logistics and supply chain operations; be it import/export of raw material or finished products. the same is also true on a smaller scale where private consumers are used to shopping online, expecting their items on their doorstep. As such, product supply chain can be resembled to a series of precariously standing dominoes in action facing a strictly scheduled timeline. However, with supply chains’ systems growing increasingly complex these days, the chances of something going wrong somewhere and affecting the whole system is also correlatively rising. In other words, if one aspect of the supply chain is exposed to risk, the entire network could be vulnerable. 

Unfortunately, the global commercial pathways from suppliers to consumers or any other B2B network chains seem to be under constant threat of intermittent force majeure repeatedly. In the last decade alone, the regional Japanese tsunami together with the Thailand winter floods back in 2011; and the multilayer ceramic capacitor/semiconductor shortages in 2018 had partially dented the supply chain flow to specific geographical locations. Although the global community was barely coping up with it somehow, it was all just a peanut compared to the global COVID-19 pandemic that took the entire system by surprise. Consequently, local and regional businesses that could not afford the shockwave were even forced to be terminated for good. Yet, there is still no guarantee if such phenomenon would be our last disruption threat impacting logistics and supply chain systems. 

The surprise blow of the pandemic ultimately served as the much-needed wake up call for most business leaders. It clearly exposed the brittleness of our present-day supply chain systems and their value inequity; reinforcing the need to prepare with rather more resilient strategies. Companies are still in constant quest of solutions that can be tailored to reduce their overall cost of bill of materials to meet their individual requirements with better off supply chain risk management system. This may include market awareness, sourcing strategies, supplier relationships, procurement budgeting, inventory management, tariff clearance, warehousing, local engagements, warrantees and return policies etc... All in all, The bottom-line lesson learned was the importance of reducing international dependencies and/or increasing supply chains’ resilience.

Apparently, manufacturing will keep on growing even more and entails its entire system to better be monitored under the watchful eyes of qualified personnel. Since supply chain at its core is people-oriented routine between suppliers, shipping agents, transiters, vendors/traders, customers/clients etc... all parties involved need to conform to the priority needs of the core business in a timely and orderly manner as well. Therefore, the decisive challenge would be how we can make all aspects possible and work them out as a well-oiled machine throughout the product lifecycle? After all it’s a highly connected marketplace now a days that any customer can directly contact primary producers using e-mail, smartphones or social media about the products and services they require. Such a perk has enabled customers to access global markets for any requirements they may have. In turn, producers and original equipment manufacturers can also be thoroughly attuned to the purchasing habits and interests of their clients using long-term feedback response and data analytics. This impending business tendency offers an unprecedented opportunity to build a customer-centric enterprise, one that connects with what people genuinely want from vendors, thereby generating a lasting commitment for each other. 

Today, we live in a world where technology is rapidly growing to create meaningful impact by augmenting peoples’ effort. Technology is thence again the ultimate distinguishing factor to answer that call for the challenge To Whom It May Concern. Given all the client centric market requirements, any company who is attuned more keenly towards technology and applying its leverage strategically; is sure to turn out being the eventual winner in any competitive marketplace. As an objective entity of our time, technology can help businesses engage with the above-mentioned processes more easily and accurately; (as it had always done so far). Priorities are changing; the more demanding the client base is for customization, the more engineers need to spend time redesigning products and future proofing them along the way. Thankfully, there are measures that businesses can take to minimize their supply chain vulnerability in the event of any possible disruptions if not completely abolish it all together.  

If the proverbial quote “An eye for an eye. . .” still holds to be valid, there would be no better way to deal with such global disruptive threats than with an equally disruptive technology. Today’s digital economy demands entirely unique approach to manage its supply chain ecosystem – with solutions that leverage real-time connectivity, cloud technology, and advanced analytics etc... Or else it seems to be an uphill battle dealing with fast-paced business environments. Here we are now, in the 4th industrial revolution standing witness to the marvels of additive technology. As disruptive as it reads, this 3D technology is proving to be a crucial tool for engineers and designers alike to tackle their supply chain challenges to a large extent than previously projected. A new way of doing things is on the horizon for most industries, which also ensures to minimize the lapse period between market incidents and reaction time even under extreme circumstances. 

        An impending tendency for localized production goods and services has eventually opted for the leverage of additive manufacturing in real time. The preceding claim was to be able to get the required custom-made product on demand right on the spot whenever it may be. In a sense, 3D printing is to the product industry just as freelancing is to the service economy over the internet. Companies can now utilize 3D technology to get what they want, when they want it and that would mean a whole new definition of supply chain management system with dynamic resilience. The incumbent potential of additive technology is in its disruptive solution to decentralize manufacturing capabilities for the highly diversified clients’ needs. It’s about time businesses reconsider their procurement options as per customization or timeline priorities. Of course, the ultimate decision to invest in additive technology process is still dependent on a well-defined trade-off between costs and benefits since AM technology is here to complement production systems (not to replace them all together). 

Take a simple scenario; since the cumulated costs of downtime for a capital asset may be quite expensive, often companies choose to limit downtime and maintenance lags just by replacing the malfunctioning part, and either disposing or repairing it off-line. In any case, there should be a spare part readily available for use beforehand. To stock up its spare inventory however, the company or its original parts’ local dealership in Addis Ababa may take up to a full-month time or more to import the required item for a particular use even if the product is already available within the parent company abroad. To add to the hustle though, transportation may be delayed if any unfortunate occasion happens like weather conditions and shipping traffic, port delays and customs/tariffs etc.; all inching away from the targeted time value of money.  

        On the other hand, though, if the same company is somewhat up to date with 3D technology, it can only enquire the design model from the original equipment manufacturer (as per their mutual copyright agreement); and go-ahead to produce the part locally with capable 3D-printer machines for a quick dispatch usage. Companies/manufacturers can now make use of this technology to produce industrial parts and products as per their local demand. Problem solved with no shipping or redundant border issues to move the actual product halfway around the world, the item is thus delivered on schedule as per the customized need of the end-user.

Such a digital 3D-production system also comes with a ripple effect benefit to all parties involved in customer responsiveness and inventory management as well. Normally in traditional manufacturing, quick customer response times are generally realized via high volume of inventories of either the final products or component modules. Commonly this approach causes a significant amount of capital investment on physical stocks minimizing companies’ liquidity. An opposite approach would be less stocks’ procurement but with longer awaiting times since specific components need to be ordered, compromising sales and supply schedules. However, AM now provides an extreme alternative with best of both worlds. Multiple product designs can be produced using capable 3D printers on the spot and yet with short delivery times spanning days if not just hours on demand which implies decoupling bottleneck solutions upstream the supply chain. Its decentralized resilience even extends to the most remote locations often encountered for parts’ enquiry in agricultural projects, far off mining activities or even during humanitarian crisis missions. All are welcome to benefit from additive manufacturing, which could provide for timely provision of their required parts on site. Further positive keynote to consider would be the growing numbers of localized printing farms, where service providers offer printing services, to fully utilize the perceived value of such business model to revamp our industrial capability.