When the pandemic crippled supply chains, one of the most critical hard-to-find items was personal protective equipment. The United States didn’t have local factories making this gear, and supply chain disruption made it hard to source from overseas. But it did have a large number of makers operating 3D printers. Within a couple months, businesses and individuals had produced tens of millions of pieces of equipment.
But this success didn’t just happen on its own. America Makes, a private-public partnership focused on growing the US additive manufacturing industry, played an important role in convening regulatory bodies and connecting them to individual makers to ensure equipment was being made properly. Products such as surgical face masks, face shields, and gowns need to be made to exacting specifications. So America Makes, which is a national institute and part of the Manufacturing USA network, worked with representatives from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, Veterans Health Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration to acquire specifications and pass them on to individuals.
As the world continues to labor under disrupted supply chains and with future shocks likely just over the horizon, this kind of approach to localized self-sufficiency is going to be important.
“We need what we need, when we need it, where we need it,” says John Wilczynski, executive director of America Makes.1 “We saw what was possible through the pandemic, but we also saw where the limitations were.”
The biggest limitation at the moment is industrial readiness. Wilczynski says a robust additive manufacturing industry can help localities deal with disruption and the technology is ready to step into this role. But across industries, leaders aren’t aware of what additive manufacturing can do. Small- and mid-sized manufacturers and other organizations often don’t see how 3D printing fits into their existing operations.
For example, the kinds of innovations pioneered by large medical centers, which are piloting and even rolling out additive manufacturing capabilities, are often different than what’s happening at smaller local hospitals, Wilczynski says. He explained that his aunt recently required a custom-fit foot orthotic. Her doctors struggled for months to craft the piece. But America Makes funded a project out of the University of Michigan more than six years ago that demonstrated how to use additive manufacturing to produce these kinds of devices. The project showed that the process is not difficult and is cost-effective. People just aren’t aware of the capabilities.
“We’re realizing the technology is well positioned to support the future,” Wilczynski says. “What we don’t have is a supply base that is aware, which means it’s not democratized.”
Another problem is that, as some businesses adapt to the new normal, they are reproducing old processes. Production that had started taking place in the United States during the worst of the pandemic is beginning to move back overseas. In some cases, this may be due to cost; in others, simply to reinstate established processes.
Wilczynski sees the potential for trouble for businesses that revert to a business-as-usual attitude. There are likely to be further disruptions in the future that strain supply chains and make it hard to get needed materials, and companies that fail to plan for this contingency are likely to be left in a difficult position.
“Those who remember lessons learned and retain skills will be prepared for the next crisis,” he says.
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