3D Printing Short Circuits Supply Chain Woes?

Relativity Space’s 3D print factory [Source: TechCrunch]

Relativity Space’s 3D print factory [Source: TechCrunch]

I’m reading an interesting article in TechCrunch describing Relativity Space’s use of 3D printing and had a thought about supply chains.

The story, written by Darrell Etherington, discusses the California-based rocket company’s Stargate 3D printer, a huge robotic-style device that can 3D print enormous metal objects with its expansive reach. Relativity Space is using this making machine to develop their mostly-3D printed rocket

Relativity Space Rocket

It’s a unique project in that the majority of the product is exclusively 3D printed. This allows them extreme freedom of design and the ability to rapidly iterate through prototypes. Since the product is not intended to be mass produced — there’s not many parties buying rockets — they can continue to use 3D printing as the production technique. 

In the TechCrunch story, Etherington says:

“Just like in almost every other industry, there’s been a rash of layoffs among newer space startups and companies amid the novel coronavirus crisis. But Relativity Space has managed to avoid layoffs — and is even hiring, despite the global pandemic. Relativity CEO and founder Tim Ellis cites the company’s focus on large-scale 3D printing and its adoption of cloud-based tools and technologies as big reasons why his startup hasn’t felt the pinch.”

This is quite revealing. Evidently Relativity Space’s factory is almost entirely automated and can be operated by a single individual. This is quite unlike most factories, which require multiple people present in addition to the automation elements. In fact, it seems that the company is hiring new workers even now.

Relativity Space Independence

What impressed me was the company’s independence gained from the use of 3D printing. 

Many manufacturers are actually “assemblers” who draw upon a sometimes-large group of component suppliers. These components are lined up in the company’s production line and are used to build the final end-use product that comes off the line. 

This is a highly efficient process, as it allows the main manufacturer to optimize the assembly, while the suppliers can optimize the production of the components. Even better, the suppliers compete against each other to gain the supply contract. 

Efficient as that strategy might be, it is at the same time fragile, particularly in these virus-laden days. 

Component suppliers are often located globally, where they are subject to virus protocols that may differ from the main manufacturer’s region. Some suppliers still operate, while others are shut down or producing fewer components. Some may be operating, but redirecting their output to “higher bidders”.

In all this creates a tricky situation for a manufacturer dependent on components for final assembly. They may have to rapidly source alternative suppliers, a task near-impossible in today’s world. Manufacturers may continue final assembly using on-hand stocks of components, but eventually they will run out and production will be suspended. 

3D Printing Advantage

This shows the advantage Relativity Space has over other manufacturers: they build their product on-site using their own equipment (and indeed the “equipment” is of their own design). They have thus minimized the need for a network of suppliers and have a far better chance of proceeding forward even in these tough times.

Could it be that having a manufacturing line based on localized 3D printing could be a workable strategy for other manufacturers? 

In theory it might be possible for some, but there are a few barriers to overcome: 

  • 3D printing is expensive on a per-unit basis and this could throw a manufacturer’s cost structure upside down

  • Very high-volume production is not yet feasible with 3D printing, even with large-scale parallel operation. 

  • Existing component designs are not necessarily 3D printable or producible with available 3D printable materials; redesign may be required. 

Those are some pretty stiff obstacles to overcome, but consider this: if your operation does not have those constraints, then perhaps you could consider a 3D printing strategy as has Relativity Space. 

Via TechCrunch