When lockdown measures were imposed to curb the spread of Covid19, manufacturers, which have long relied on smooth-flowing supply chains to function, were hit hard. China’s Purchasing Manager Index (PMI) fell sharply from 50.0 in January 2020 to a record low of 35.7 the following month. 

According to supply chain business network Procurious, 97% of 605 supply chain professionals suffered some form of disruption, nudging 73% of them to build greater resilience into operations. Consultancy Bain and Co expects 45% of US firms to shift supply chains closer to home over the next three years, while HP’s Digital Manufacturing Trends Report sees nine in 10 respondents exploring new supply chain models. 

HP sees that more extensive use of technologies, even four-decade-old 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing), can help bring resilience to supply chains. Alexandre Lalumiere, head, Asia Pacific and Japan, of 3D printing and digital manufacturing at HP, says that the HP 3D printing ecosystem alone created nearly four million medical equipment parts to aid relief efforts. 

“The digital versatility and quick prototyping of 3D printing empowers a swift mobilisation of the technology and hence a rapid response to emergencies ... critical parts can be manufactured on-demand by any decentralised 3D-printing facility in the world by leveraging designs shared online,” writes a team of scientists led by Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Clarrisa Choong in Nature. In practical terms, Lalumiere tells The Edge Singapore, firms are able to use 3D printing to quickly create manufacturing tools and redesign them should they need to produce new products, reducing the costs that firms incur to change their output mix. 

Such characteristics are also attractive to businesses looking to develop operational agility in a world of disrupted supply chains. “Until now, automobile production was based on mould production. By using 3D printers, a smallvolume component can be mass-produced at low cost,” Toshikazu Nanbu, expert leader for the research division at Nissan Motors, tells the HP Innovation Summit 2020. He sees 3D printing reducing the costs of manufacturing complex components, allowing for improved capability in automobiles without increasing prices. HP finds that improved ability for innovation was cited as the biggest benefit of 3D printing. 

As supply chains become increasingly “ringfenced”, moreover, 3D printing allows for businesses to shorten their supply chains and bear lower risk. According to logistics service provider Hollingsworth, 3D printing can eliminate intermediary suppliers by manufacturing complete products; its ability to manufacture ondemand limits surplus stocks and thus warehousing costs too. Instead of having to produce different components overseas and ship them physically across borders, firms can now transmit blueprints online and have these components manufactured on-site, shielding supply chains from global risks like tariffs. 

While the growing interest in 3D printing is global, Asia, with China touted as “factory of the world”, is at the head of the curve in adoption. In such a dynamic manufacturing market, says Lalumiere, 3D printing is a way to improve efficiency. “That movement started here in Asia. In fact, this optimism is going to continue post-Covid,” he says. According to HP, 85% of worldwide respondents to its Digital Manufacturing Trends survey intend to invest more in additive manufacturing over the next 12 months, with this number reaching as high as 90% in China. 

Nurturing an ecosystem 

HP and other 3D printing cheerleaders aside, firms still face significant challenges adopting this technology. Geoffrey Doyle, director of business development at manufacturing services firm Jabil, finds that 97% of users face difficulties adopting 3D printing, with 44% facing workforce issues and 39% challenged by product design or post-processing. 

Lalumiere remarks that if people do not know how to use 3D printing, they will not be able to fully realise the potential of its ability to create quality products at high speed and low cost. 

That is why HP has partnered Nanyang Technological University and the National Research Foundation to spend $84 million and establish the HP-NTU Corporate Lab to promote wider commercial use of 3D printing. This lab is also meant to support Singapore’s wider push into advanced manufacturing and engineering. 

Dr Mike Regan, director of HP Labs and chief technology officer at HP-NTU Corporate Lab, explains that besides the research and development, the lab offers more basic training for workers to use 3D printing as well. “We have set up courses for undergraduates and graduate students, but we have also used the PaCE (Professional and Continuing Education) programme to build short ‘bite-sized’ courses that can be taken over a few days,” he tells The Edge Singapore. 

Courses on offer by the lab include classes on the 3D printing of advanced polymer products and medical devices and tissues. The lab also hosts industry events and discussions on topics such as building resilient supply chains and the future of digital manufacturing. Regan says that the lab is putting together a webinar in November to discuss “the state-of-the-art for SMEs” while collaborating with MNCs to help raise the visibility of this technology to the rest of the industry. 

But HP also believes in learning by doing, an instinct on full display at the SMARC, or Smart Manufacturing Applications and Research Center, facility set up at HP’s new Singapore campus in 2017. “I call it the playground,” jokes Lalumiere, who explains that SMARC engineers have a mandate from senior management to experiment with emerging technologies to help improve efficiency and flexibility on HP’s Singapore manufacturing line. In the process, he says, these engineers become a core cadre of advanced experts in these technologies that can serve as consultants to external clients looking to introduce 3D printing into their operations. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, SMEs are more willing to experiment, and as such, they are often quicker than MNCs to adopt new technologies. “The decision-making process is much faster and they are typically less risk-averse. If they have a mandate from the company to adopt a certain technology or move to digital manufacturing, the pace of change is very, very fast compared to large MNCs,” marvels Lalumiere, who confesses that his own spectacles and insoles have been 3D-printed by SMEs. 

But SMEs may find difficulties raising capital to acquire 3D-printing capabilities — a challenge that HP circumvents through “service bureaus”. These bureaus, using HP technology, serve as mini-contract manufacturers that print parts according to blueprints sent over by their clients. In short, they provide 3D printing-as-a-service. Lalumiere boasts that in China, the use of such bureaus has led to a significant increase in 3D printing adoption, as companies save on upfront costs since they do not need to buy their own equipment. 

But there is also a dark side to 3D printing. The very accessibility and ease of use have raised questions about the continued sanctity of intellectual property (IP), quality control, and even the manufacture of contraband items. In the US, for instance, the Trump administration and a Seattle Federal Court recently got into a tussle about the legality of proliferating 3Dprinted gun blueprints online. The increasing shift to remote manufacturing using 3D printers, moreover, increases the vulnerability of business operations to cyberattacks, significantly disrupting the production process. 

“We have implemented very strict security protocols inside of our technologies to encrypt data that is being transmitted,” claims Lalumiere, noting that HP strongly enforces prohibitions on contraband use. The HP-NTU Corporate Lab also combines the established reputation of both HP and NTU in cybersecurity to develop security solutions for digital factories, as well as secures workflows and mitigate malware threats to 3D printers. While 3D-printed guns are illegal in Singapore under the Firearms and Explosives Act and current laws are sufficient to protect non-commercial use, there remain questions regarding quality control and protection for 3D-printer owners, among regulatory challenges. 

A manufacturing revolution? 

The growing awareness of 3D printing’s potential coincides with the impending rollout of 5G mobile communications networks around the world. Singapore, for one, is expected to have two fully-fledged networks by 2025. While HP Labs’ Regan acknowledges that reaching 5G’s full potential remains some years away, the highspeed wireless transmission of high volumes of data will help in the integration of printers and devices, leading to better-quality 3D-printed products and better efficiency of the process. Singtel, on its part, envisions operators remote-controlling multiple pieces of equipment. 

The next step in 3D printing’s evolution, says Regan, is to improve on materials engineering and design capabilities. For example, HP is partnering Canadian mould maker Pulp Moulding Dies and Atlanta-based packaging provider Veritiv. The partners hope to develop more sustainable packaging made from the moulded pulp of recycled paperboard or newsprint through lighter, faster, more durable and user-friendly tools with improved designs. 

HP is also constantly trying to improve the productivity of its products, in terms of speed and also by being economical in the volume of materials required, says Lalumiere. As a gauge, users should be able to conduct more than one print cycle per day in order to maximise their productivity in terms of equipment and manpower. 

On the other hand, Lalumiere also urges potential users, especially established MNCs, to be more open to making the most of 3D printing. He says while there are necessary changes to their operations and supply chains, the payoff will come.