Additive Manufacturing Gives Supply Chains a Boost

Micro factories are cropping up as companies aim to strengthen their supply chains. Shipping containers that house 3D printers have become mobile mini-factories that can produce food, construction parts, and even military-grade products.


Article Key

During the past couple of years, we have witnessed impressive growth of specific technology segments—cloud computing, we’re looking at you—as well as stymied manufacturing due to the pandemic-induced supply chain disruption. A 2020 McKinsey survey of supply chain executives found 73 percent faced issues with supplier footprint, and 93 percent planned to make their supply chains more resilient, agile, and flexible. To prevent similar disruption in the future, these supply chain execs planned to increase inventory and to establish regional and local supply networks.

One year later, McKinsey repeated the survey and found 92 percent had changed their supply chains. Nearly two-thirds increased their inventory, as a fast way to protect against shortages is to have more inventory on hand. However, only a quarter of respondents had regionalized their supply chains, though it’s still high on the list.

According to McKinsey, “Almost 90 percent of respondents told us that they expect to pursue some degree of regionalization during the next three years, and 100 percent of respondents from both the healthcare and the engineering, construction, and infrastructure sectors said the approach was relevant to their sector.”


Thinking Inside the Box

Finding new suppliers can be challenging, particularly in niche industries, and building new structures takes time. New micro factories are emerging, and it could change how supply chains operate.

These mini factories, typically housed in shipping containers, use additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence to manufacture items with minimal waste and on-demand production capabilities. The proliferation of 5G is likely to propel the use of micro factories, as wired connections will no longer be needed. Micro factories can manufacture food, hardware components, and other items.

Pennsylvania-based ExOne, recently inked a 1.6 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a portable additive manufacturing factory in a 40-foot shipping container. The micro factory can be deployed in the field to manufacture parts for defense, disaster relief, or other needs. Products can be produced on ExOne’s jet binder 3D printers in 48 hours, far faster than traditional procurement methods, which can take up to six weeks.

Mobile Smart Factory, based in Lueneburg, Germany, has created a two-unit micro factory that manufactures metal and plastic components. The control unit contains a PC workstation, industrial polymer printer, scanning system, and storage area, which contains the materials needed to print the items. Using CAD software and a database of products, an operator can select the items to manufacture on the 3D printer. A second unit houses the customizable 3D printer. For metals, it uses a multi-optional, six-axis additive manufacturing center from Metrom.

Food for Thought

Micro factories aren’t limited to hardware components, however. Unilever is piloting a mobile factory in The Netherlands that produces liquid bullion, used for cooking. Housed inside a 40-foot shipping container, the mini factory operates using IoT sensors that connect to a remote computing platform. The system is fully automated and remotely controlled, so it requires minimal on-site staff. With one electrical cable and one water hose, the shipping container factory turns raw ingredients into packaged bullion at a rate of 300 tons every eight hours.

Unilever is considering deploying these micro factories across the globe and might expand to other food items, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, and ice cream. The smaller scale provides agility, allowing the company to run small test batches or produce seasonal items more easily. The setup would also work for some of Unilever’s beauty and home care products.

The mobile footprint allows production to happen near the raw materials, which can improve product freshness. Because they operate from a centralized system, the units offer flexibility; they can be relocated if needed. Down the line, these micro factories could be leased, rented, or sold to other companies or local businesses.

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