Point of View

Develop 3D printing services for continuity planning in manufacturing and healthcare supply chains

April 17, 2020

Our Industry 4.0 Services Top 10 report found service providers’ 3D printing solutions generally lacking maturity. Some were mature, but many were still developing their capability; until now, that wasn’t necessarily a mistake, because the technology is rapidly developing. COVID-19, however, has brought 3D printing to the fore. Traditional supply chains have crumbled, and, in turn, so has healthcare systems’ ability to acquire life-saving equipment like ventilators, testing kits, and personal protective equipment (PPE). In response, manufacturers are pivoting their factories to produce a range of complex equipment and reprogramming their 3D printers to make critical parts. Develop mature 3D printing services and integrate them into your business continuity planning (BCP) services for supply chains, particularly for the healthcare and manufacturing sectors that have borne the brunt of COVID-19. Use this as a springboard to lead 3D printing service providers.


Providers must be the ones to bring 3D printing services into BCPs


Firms are chaotically implementing continuity plans—many of which are not designed for a pandemic–in response to COVID-19. For those tackling severe supply chain disruption, getting everyone a laptop and a good WiFi connection won’t cut it, especially in the healthcare sector and for the manufacturers that supply it. Stepping in is 3D printing, providing on-demand manufacturing near the end user.


Despite 3D printing’s somewhat unstructured success in the wake of COVID-19, service providers should implement the combinations of technology and services that a BCP needs to meet a challenge of this magnitude. For example, firms shouldn’t source unregulated 3D-printed facemasks (or 3D printing software and designs) that, if produced incorrectly, can create a false sense of security and potentially do more harm than good.


Re-purposing 3D printers is faster and cheaper than pivoting an entire factory


HP provides an example of 3D printing’s flexibility in times of crisis; the printing giant’s Spanish and US R&D centers, alongside its partner networks, are producing face masks, respirator parts, and other critical medical equipment. HP’s partner networks are coordinating production systems to meet local needs, but also on a worldwide scale, while also offering validated PPE designs to make sure that services get to those most in need.


“With 3-D printing, we can go from design to production within an hour. But in traditional manufacturing, you have to work from a mold, and the mold has to be made first.”


Ramon Pastor, acting president of 3-D printing and manufacturing, HP, Inc.


We’ve seen manufacturing powerhouses turn their factories to medical equipment production; for example, Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota. “Re-tooling” a 3D printer involves a simpler adjustment of software and equipment. Compare this simple adjustment with General Motors’ billion-dollar price tag to re-tool a car parts factory in collaboration with Ventec Life Systems. Examples already exist where printers make extreme ranges of products such as airplane parts, hip replacements, or prosthetics. Airbus’ Spanish and German sites have turned to 3D printing visor frames for medical staff overnight.


Small firms are also using 3D printing prowess to help save lives. Isinnova, an Italian engineering start-up, is a fantastic example. It reverse-engineered a critical respirator part that the official manufacturer couldn’t supply fast enough, and it is 3D printing them.


Regulatory approval for healthcare equipment has naturally been a barrier to many initiatives like these. But partnerships such as the FDA collaborating with America Makes, the US’ national additive manufacturing innovation institute, are ensuring new 3D printing initiatives meet healthcare’s specific needs and strict standards while fulfilling the call for rapid response. This type of regulator-manufacturer collaboration allows firms like Medtronic to open source its basic ventilator design, enabling start-ups, academic institutions, and industrial manufacturers to produce much-needed equipment.


Service providers and technology vendors are key enablers for manufacturers, and they must address 3D printing’s limitations


Service and technology providers are turning their commitment and 3D printing capability to the fight against COVID-19:



Though 3D printing is attracting attention at this time, it’s not a magic wand for business continuity plans:


  • Limited production quantities: 3D printing remains slower than traditional techniques; mass manufacturing is outside of the immediate future, as are efficiencies of cost, energy, and scale.
  • Product and component size: Most 3D printers produce small products and components, so they cannot be leveraged for making all components in manufacturers’ catalogs.
  • Limited choice of printing material: 3D printing materials are mostly plastic, with metal applications on the rise; however, the quality of metal 3D printing remains inferior to traditional manufacturing methods.
  • Security issues: Manufacturers circulate 3D printing designs in a bid to collectively produce critical medical equipment; cybersecurity must address privacy, counterfeiting, and malicious intent.


Manufacturers and their partners must be clear in identifying the products and components that are eligible for 3D printing.


The Bottom Line: For BCP in manufacturing, healthcare, and any industry at risk of supply chain disruption, providers need to arm themselves with 3D printing technology and service capability.


In the past, 3D printing’s rapid and ongoing development and low rate of mass adoption were excuses for providers to keep watch from afar. Now they must step up and develop their capabilities:


  • COVID-19 has shown how 3D printing can be a critical part of BCP in healthcare and manufacturers’ supply chains.
  • 3D printing will soon become a standard in industrial and consumer manufacturing, while also increasing in popularity as a way for consumers to develop and print their own products. Developing mature services to address supply chain BCP will put providers in a select pool with the capability for when 3D printing becomes essential for any manufacturing setting.

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