Supply chain disruptions have sprung up in the past year and a half due to massive changes in demand patterns, bottlenecks in shipping and, most recently, the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. Most people expect these problems to resolve over time.
A supply chain is the network of all the people, organizations, resources, activities, and technology involved in creating and selling a product. The supply chain includes everything from the delivery of source materials from the supplier to the manufacturer to its eventual delivery to the end user
There may be a whole separate category of supply chain disruption, however, that manufacturers need to take into account. On-demand manufacturing in the cloud, rooted in new factory technologies and cutting-edge software solutions, is having a greater impact on production. This new manufacturing approach ultimately promises to dramatically rethink how supply chains operate.
Technologies underpinning the growth of cloud manufacturing include 3D printing, which can increasingly be used to produce high-quality metal and plastic parts, even for demanding applications in industries such as aerospace and automotive. Advanced machining and injection molding technologies are also part of the mix in this digital manufacturing system.
By providing advanced capabilities in factory networks across multiple locations, companies like Fast Radius, Fathom Digital Manufacturing, Xometry, and Protolabs are reducing lead time and changing the logistical equation for parts production. They make it easier and faster to replicate prototypes and provide alternative sourcing solutions for low volume production parts.
What does this look like in the real world? Curtiss, a high-end electric motorcycle manufacturer, worked with Fast Radius to create prototypes of its key bike parts, using CNC and ancillary technologies, and is now using the digital manufacturing company to ramp up production. According to a case study published by Fast Radius, the arrangement allows Curtiss to source parts as demand dictates, avoiding the need to purchase and stock excessive parts inventory.
In another example of how cloud manufacturing can provide solutions for low-volume production parts, Fast Radius makes an electrical connector that Ford needs for the tow package on its F-150 pickup truck in select markets. By working with auto parts supplier Aptiv, Fast Radius has been able to 3D print this low volume part and meet the automotive industry’s stringent quality and engineering requirements.
The goal of cloud manufacturing or the maturity of digital manufacturing is to develop the ability to produce a large variety of parts and products, using materials and processes that meet stringent industry standards, and to do it all efficiently and quickly. Potential benefits of this approach range from reducing environmental burdens by eliminating some long-distance transportation to allowing mass customization based on the needs of individual consumers.
In parallel with the advent of cloud manufacturing, the latest digital design software is changing how part design is performed and making it possible to quickly realize ideas using the latest manufacturing technologies. New software platforms that can interface easily and quickly with modern 3D printing or CNC machines represent a major shift in how business gets done.
Finally, a key issue is protecting the intellectual property that underpins much of the manufacturing value chain. The digital file of the part that navigates in cyberspace raises security risks. There should be clear safeguards around how a part’s design is used to ensure trade secrets and patents are protected. The best cloud manufacturing software platforms will provide significant resources for cybersecurity.
With this fast-moving technology, the best approach is to learn about its opportunities, applications, and risks — and act quickly to understand how it affects your business.
Robert Hirsch is the National Partner in Charge, Manufacturing, at Grant Thornton.