Supply chain disturbances have been rife in the past year and a half due to dramatic changes in demand patterns, bottlenecks in shipping and most recently the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. Most expect these issues will resolve over time.
There may be a whole separate category of supply chain disruption, however, that manufacturers need to consider. On-demand manufacturing in the cloud, rooted in new factory technologies and evolving software solutions, is having an ever-greater impact on production. This new manufacturing approach promises ultimately to drive a significant rethink of how supply chains function.
The technologies underpinning the growth of cloud manufacturing include 3-D printing, which increasingly can be used to produce high-quality metal and plastic parts, even for demanding applications in industries such as aerospace and automotive. Advanced CNC machining and injection molding technologies also are part of the mix in this digital manufacturing ecosystem.
By making advanced capabilities available at factory networks across multiple locations, companies such as Fast Radius, Fathom Digital Manufacturing, Xometry and Protolabs are cutting lead time and altering the logistics equation for parts production. They’re making it easier and faster to iterate prototypes and providing an alternative sourcing solution for lower volume production parts.
What does this look like in the real world? Curtiss, a maker of high-end electric motorcycles, has worked with Fast Radius to prototype parts for its flagship bike, using both CNC and additive technologies, and now it’s using the digital manufacturing firm 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 buy and warehouse an excessive parts inventory.
In another example of how cloud manufacturing can provide solutions for lower-volume production parts, Fast Radius makes an electrical connector that Ford needs for the tow package on its F-150 pickup truck in certain markets. Working with automotive parts supplier Aptiv, Fast Radius was able to 3-D print this lower volume part and meet strict automotive industry engineering and quality requirements.
The goal as cloud manufacturing or digital manufacturing matures is to develop the ability to produce a huge variety of parts and products, using materials and processes that meet stringent industry standards, and do it all efficiently and quickly. Potential benefits of this approach range from easing environmental burdens by eliminating some long-distance transport to allowing for mass customization based on the needs of individual consumers.
In tandem with the rise of cloud manufacturing, state-of-the-art digital design software is changing how parts design gets done and making it possible to quickly bring ideas to fruition using the latest manufacturing technologies. New software platforms that can easily and quickly interface with 3-D printing or state-of-the-art CNC machines represent a significant transformation in how business gets done.
Finally, a key issue is the protection of the intellectual property that underpins so much of the manufacturing value chain. A digital file for a part that’s moving around cyberspace raises security risks. There will need to be clear guardrails around how any part design is to be used to ensure that trade secrets and patents are protected. The best cloud-manufacturing software platforms will bring considerable cybersecurity resources to bear.
With this fast-moving technology, the best approach is to get familiar with its opportunities, applications and risks—and work quickly to understand how it’s going to impact your business.
Robert Hersh is national partner-in-charge, Manufacturing, at Grant Thornton.