Additive manufacturing’s potential to reinvigorate the U.S. supply chain

May 11, 2021

John Wilczynski_2019

John Wilczynski, Executive Director of America Makes explores how advanced manufacturing is reinventing possibilities in supply chain.

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing technology are moving beyond their decades-long role as a prototyping tool, to a legitimate, holy grail manufacturing sector in solving supply chain crises and disruption.

Not only has AM emerged as an integral part of modern manufacturing because of its unique, rapid manufacturing capabilities in various sectors, but the AM industry itself has made significant strides over the past few years to become more industrialised as evident in the existing use cases of AM technology—from airplanes to medical applications like hip and knee replacements, and to a lesser extent, custom automobiles.

By adopting AM, the manufacturing industry has saved millions of dollars in production costs while building stronger businesses that can withstand an even a once-in-a-century crisis such as COVID-19.

Additive Manufacturing as a National Strategy

The White House administration has created more opportunities for small and medium-sized manufacturers to become suppliers for the federal government, furthering the mission of ensuring the future products will be made by American manufacturers. This priority by the administration was exemplified when President Biden signed a “Made in America” Executive Order (EO) in late January, to direct more spending of the federal government’s 600 billion USD procurement budget on American-made products— rethinking the existing regulatory framework.

By narrowing the loopholes that allow government purchases of foreign products, increasing agency accountability, and directing agencies to seek out US suppliers, this Build Back Better Recovery Plan is set to invest in American workers, unions and businesses up and down the supply chain to revitalise American manufacturing and secure a “Made in America” future.

Another effort underscoring the emerging importance of 3D printing technology, was the Department of Defense releasing its first-ever Additive Manufacturing Strategy to set national standards for digital manufacturing products and processes. The strategy further called out a requirement for the development of policies to integrate the use of AM into weapon systems, material readiness and warfighter capabilities. The DOD created the strategy with the intention on “bringing together” all stakeholders inside and outside the military in the supply chain and academia. The strategy serves as a prime example of ways in which the military is attempting to make AM easier to use, and the barriers they break down will set a tone across other industries and help to foster even bigger changes for the rest of society and the manufacturing community.

COVID-19 Prompts Executive Action for U.S. Supply Chains

AM’s role is paramount in reinvigorating America’s supply chain. The pandemic has revealed our nation’s untenable overdependence on external imports and that having the capacity to respond quickly in the face of challenges prompts further need for security in our supply chain to ensure our nation’s continued safety, health, and prosperity.

In response to these needs, the administration released a critical executive order to secure and strengthen the supply chains vital to America’s continued progress. The administration’s order places emphasis on the crucial role that America’s advanced manufacturing community has played in closing supply chain gaps during the pandemic and ways it continues to drive the U.S. innovation ecosystem by supporting U.S. technological competitiveness.

Advanced Manufacturing’s Role in Crisis Production Response

With AM at the forefront of our innovation ecosystem, America has the potential to become a country where crisis response is automatic, with systems in place to “surge” critical supplies into a crisis zone – local, regional, national, or global – regardless of what those supplies are, or who has historically produced them. Companies like America Makes, a National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, have served as a catalyst for change in helping to ensure our country is using digitally distributed manufacturing to address today’s most critical needs.

As an example, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, America Makes coordinated and mobilised the AM community to work to address medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages by matching healthcare communities in need with non-traditional manufacturers who provided 3D-printed medical accessories such as face shields and masks. By transitioning COVID-19 relief response to a distributed supply chain and enabling digitally distributed manufacturing work, additive manufacturing has proven to have potential to reinvigorate America’s supply chain during a crisis.

Due to varying degrees of intensity and demand across U.S. cities and states, there is a further need for government and this administration to continue taking action to ensure that America is prepared to tackle any crisis or challenge, whether the issue is related to defense, medical or transportation issues. Additive manufacturing is especially positioned to respond to such surges and offer customised solutions given its ability to create an environment where the technology is closer to the point of use.

As the current pandemic slowly subsides, America Makes is working to instate a digitally distributed manufacturing platform and network, the Advanced Manufacturing Crisis Production Response (AMCPR), to ensure that communities in need can receive safe, effective solutions from vetted manufacturers. This platform also creates a structure for AM to be the national solution for future manufacturing crises and enhances overall national economic competitiveness and security by addressing critical needs using other advanced manufacturing technologies.

By revolutionising the domestic supply chain and reconsidering the nation’s stockpiling strategy, there is an opportunity to accelerate the manufacturing of products and to leave behind an enduring infrastructure to serve in the future. In building this capacity, America Makes is serving as a convener in raising awareness of the ways in which AM can add value at a national scale.

Additive Manufacturing’s Ability to Create Industrial Change

Overall, advanced manufacturing is reinventing possibilities in the American supply chain by using American-made products and materials to address critical needs and modernise national infrastructures. AM’s innovative capabilities are poised to proliferate across multiple industries including healthcare, electronics, defense, aerospace, energy and more sectors. Governments and organisations must consider AM as they discuss national supply chain readiness and leverage this ground-breaking technology’s potential to create industrial change.

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