1660343313418 Ellenjkullman

Inflexible supply chains, meet the nimble approach to manufacturing

April 20, 2020

Digital manufacturing and 3D printing rises to combat COVID-19.


The worldwide crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly exposed significant vulnerabilities of existing supply chains. The health of the global economy, and the ability of people around the world to obtain needed goods, depends on supply chains that are, by and large, neither diversified nor adaptable. 

Carbon's Ellen Kullman

Thus, when a supply chain is disrupted, no immediate remedy is possible and instead we must wait for things to ‘go back to normal.’

There is a perfect-storm quality as we all face the COVID-19 crisis. In the current scenario, supply chain disruptions not only make economic problems worse, but also—tragically— exacerbate the already staggering human health consequences of the pandemic. For example, the challenges that medical workers face in obtaining personal protective equipment has led  to greater instances of illness among those our society is relying on most. And the difficulty many health systems are encountering in obtaining testing swabs undermines our ability to understand infection rates and improve tracking to slow the pandemic’s spread.

At our company, this crisis has also revealed the potential of digital technologies to avoid pitfalls of traditional supply chains. As a digital-manufacturing company, we are seeing our customers and partners embrace our cloud-centric 3D printing technology as mission critical. Items like testing swbs and face shields are being produced at volumes into the tens of thousands. Products can also be manufactured at locations closest to where they are most needed. The smart hardware and cloud-connected nature of our printers enable our partners to be nimble—to pivot immediately from printing what they normally make, like midsoles or dental products, to printing parts to address medical supply and equipment shortages.

This is the power of distributed, digital manufacturing. Such adaptability lies in stark contrast to prevailing inflexible supply chains and the reliance on the warehousing of physical parts in limited locations. Even in the case of a disruption within the global network of our printers, if one facility were to go down, digital designs stored in the cloud can be easily downloaded and manufactured at another location.

It will be critical to have a greater focus on supply chain adaptability in the future, as the world confronts global disruptions, whether caused by pandemics or other events like earthquakes and hurricanes. Digital technologies—and digital manufacturing platforms in particular—will play a key role in this emerging transformation.

Ellen Kullman is president and CEO of Carbon