While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries and their supply chains, it has been incredible to see how the healthcare sector has responded – helped in many ways by the clever use of 3D printing. By Michael Boyle, Managing Director, HP Australia & New Zealand.

The sudden shortage of essential medical equipment brought on by the pandemic, including respiratory support and personal protective equipment (PPE), has offered a glimpse at how supply chain disruptions can be mitigated with 3D printing, as well as new business opportunities 3D printing can provide when adopted at a large scale.

One advantage of 3D printing is extreme flexibility and the ability to rapidly redeploy equipment from one task to another – in other words, to retool. Using a 3D printer, you can be creating building materials one moment and medical prosthetics the next by loading a digital design of the new part into the printer. This agility makes 3D printing useful for prototyping and for making low-run parts that can be used to repair outdated equipment or create custom products to solve unique challenges.

Flexibility has allowed industries to repurpose their production and R&D capabilities towards manufacturing mass quantities of hand sanitizer, producing tens of thousands of masks and gowns, and retooling factories to assemble face shields. In New Zealand, not-for-profit group ShieldsUp has worked with HP New Zealand, Emirates Team New Zealand and Rodin Cars New Zealand, along with hundreds of 3D printing enthusiasts and volunteers across the country, to design and deliver almost 18,000 face shields in under two months.

Triple Eight Race Engineering managed to successfully transfer its 3D printing capabilities from the racetrack to the ICU ward. When approached by the Queensland State Government, the team redirected their HP 3D printers that were typically reserved for producing car parts, towards designing and manufacturing critical ventilator components.

At HP, we have been mobilising our 3D Printing team and global Digital Manufacturing Partner Network to design, validate and produce essential parts for medical responders and hospitals. More than 158,000 3D-printed parts have been delivered to frontline workers in Asia Pacific, with over 2.3 million parts printed globally.

Beyond boosting the supply of PPE for healthcare workers during COVID-19, 3D printing is allowing companies to transform their supply chain strategies and introduce on-demand manufacturing for the long term. The real-time nature of 3D printing not only helps businesses retool to solve immediate supply shortages, it simplifies and shortens supply chains by allowing components to be produced closer to home and nearer to the customer. By extension, the headaches that often come with navigating international transportation, tariffs, and exposure to geopolitics, are reduced.

Moreover, cost-effective trial and error can encourage rapid prototyping that fosters greater innovation, personalisation of products, and improved time-to-market. The ability to print a customer’s order as required also has the potential to save businesses from holding large inventories of product and reduce costs associated with holding warehouse space.

The current crisis has reminded us how interconnected our supply chains are, with conduct in one country having a ripple effect across the globe. Yet thanks to 3D printing, the pandemic has also reminded us of the value of local manufacturing and the need to promote capability-based alliances across industries.

Replicating experiences seen in the healthcare sector, the benefits of on-demand printing to shortened supply chains and improved time-to-market apply to all industries and businesses. As businesses begin assessing their strategic priorities and changes to manage the impact of COVID-19 on operations, we should learn from past experiences and embrace cutting-edge technology, like 3D printing, to streamline operations and reduce exposure to global fluctuations.