Supply Chain Council of European Union |

Interview: HP’s Ramon Pastor on 3D printing’s role in supply chain resiliency, sustainability & mass customisation

Ramon Pastor sits, enthused and analytical, with a production facility over his shoulder, fresh from a panel session he participated in at an HP Innovation Summit. It’s just like any other year.

That the squeaky-clean factory is a virtual Zoom backdrop that occasionally clashes with an urgently additively manufactured field respirator, unfortunately means that it isn’t.

As we discuss supply chain resiliency, nasopharyngeal swabs, 3D printing-enabled mass customisation and more, we are some 865 miles apart. It’s a conversation that would typically take place with us both present at HP’s annual Innovation Summit in the Barcelona summer. Instead, Pastor and his HP colleagues spent those months learning what a nasal swab did, getting to grips with the specifications of medical respirators, and additively manufacturing Y-connectors in their droves to enable the assembly of makeshift breathing apparatus as the supply of all of these products dwindled, and their demand rocketed.

Rescheduled for the fall as a virtual event, Pastor, the World Wide General Manager of HP’s 3D Printing business, is slightly less busy, a little more relaxed, and suitably observant when he assesses, “the resiliency of the supply chain is the resiliency of the worst part of the supply chain.”

It’s a point made about the requirement for supply chains across industries to be revamped and better capable of withstanding unexpected events. As a company that has components of its supply chain reliant on both the internal additive manufacture of components ‘across all HP product lines’ and on production in Asian locations, HP and Pastor had a pretty good view of the disruptive nature of 2020. The closures of factories in countries like Japan may have caught HP by surprise as winter turned to spring, but in its application of 3D printing, ‘we didn’t have any problems whatsoever.’

By this point, 3D printing is considered a very important part of HP’s bid to improve the resiliency of its supply chain. The company started the internal application for its variety of product lines some years ago and has only seen the importance increase as supply chains across the globe faltered earlier in the year. Amid the release of a Digital Manufacturing Report, in which HP surveyed 2,175 3D printing and digital manufacturing ‘decision-makers’ between July 28-August 11 2020, the idea that 3D printing could help sure up supply chains and make them more agile was shared by 79% of respondents, with 92% investigating new production and supply chain models.

“I think that during the pandemic, the industry has taken note and see how a more resilient way to produce might be good,” says Pastor. “I think there’s a very similar situation of 3D printing and supply chains with the banks. In response to the financial crisis that we had ten years ago, the European Union was demanding the banking systems do some stress tests and if you don’t pass the stress test, then you don’t have the license to operate, basically. I think the supply chain is the same. What you cannot do is design the cheapest, most efficient supply chain when everything goes well. I think that you need to have a variety of stress tests of different circumstances that might happen and make sure that you have the best supply chain that is able to operate across these different disrupting circumstances.”

Selected HP Digital Manufacturing Report Results: 

  • 92% say they are investigating new production/ supply chain models
  • 79% says additive manufacturing helps their company be more agile
  • 88% believe it important that governments incentivise investment in digital manufacturing technologies
  • 93% want to explore the innovation that mass customisation provides & believe it could be applicable to their business
  • 81% indicated that collaboration across sectors to embrace digital manufacturing is important

Pastor accepts the appetite to integrate 3D printing into supply chains may reduce slightly after an initial surge on the back of its successful application during the pandemic, but also considers that most companies will learn from the events of earlier this year. While one pull factor of 3D printing is the agility and resiliency it can add to supply chains, the other, and the most important one per Pastor, is its ability to help companies match supply and demand more efficiently.

“That is the fundamental thing you need to happen in your supply chain,” Pastor emphasises. “If you’re able to match demand and supply then you’re fine. If you’re able to manufacture only when you have the order, then you don’t have stocks, you don’t have scrap. This is something that has happened with 2D printing. If you go to Amazon and you buy a book, they tell you it’s in inventory. It’s not in inventory, it’s virtual inventory and they print it when you ask for it. The same thing is now happening in 3D. There are companies we are working with who are starting to have their products in digital inventory and don’t manufacture until they have the order. There’s no better supply chain than this.”

Judging by some of the survey results Pastor has been analysing over the last few weeks, he’s not alone in that line of thinking. After the COVID-19 outbreak, 90% said they are looking at ways to evolve their business models because of the current world business environment, 99% believe digital manufacturing technologies can lead to economic growth, 77% indicated they plan to invest in digital manufacturing technologies over the next 12 months and 86% suggested they would expect investment into additive manufacturing to increase.

With 79% also suggesting they feel additive manufacturing is a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing, the stats look largely promising, but 75% suggested 3D printing may be used as a back-up to traditional means. While that could be construed as three-quarters of digital manufacturers finding a role for 3D printing to play in their business, it might not align with every vendor’s visions of how their technology would be applied, nor how they modelled their business, especially if they’re relying on material sales to generate the bulk of their revenue.

“Let me be provocative here,” Pastor says, “I think it’s a bad idea to base the business model in materials and a very bad idea that the only thing we aspire is to do niche applications of super high value-added. I think that we need to drive cost aggressively down to drive adoption. If you fundamentally believe that there is an elasticity on cost and demand; if you reduce the cost of the product, the demand will accelerate, so it’s not a very good idea to hold the margins on the material.”

What is a good idea relative to 3D printing materials, according to 89% of respondents to HP’s survey, is their ability to be recycled, which aligns with HP’s ideals of how to maximise 3D printing’s sustainability potential. From the outset, Pastor says the company wanted to ensure that all materials able to be processed on Multi Jet Fusion machines could be recycled and reused, while it has also started working with materials partners to develop products made from bioplastics. There are other things, Pastor believes, that can help in this effort too.

“I think what we need to do, as an industry, is a better job explaining what the carbon footprint impact of distributed manufacturing will be,” he says. “The shortening of supply chains, getting rid of all this transportation that consumes a lot of fuel, that’s something that we need to better quantify and share. This matching of supply and demand is huge also. There’s a lot of industries that scrap 30 to 40% of what they produce. It has a huge, huge impact.”

Per HP’s Digital Manufacturing Report, 51% said they are investigating localised production and hybrid models, 42% are investigating distributed supply chains and 88% called for governments to create a sustainable ecosystem by incentivising investment into digital manufacturing technologies. Government support is something Pastor has always considered to be important – “you need to put yourself in the shoes of the company doing this really big investment to change the way they’re doing the things that actually work reasonably well for them, so why change?” – but especially post-pandemic when, across industries, a lot of capital investment has been delayed due to the rocky economic climate – “Now, they’re being cautious, so this is the time for government involvement.”

More on HP

Pastor references Italy as one European country that has done well in this regard, with its 2017 Budget Law introducing tax incentives for companies investing in technology systems that align with the Industry 4.0 concept. But it’s felt manufacturers elsewhere need that initial push, an economic persuasion, to invest and adopt additive manufacturing technology, and then, once they’ve done that, more than 80% of the Digital Manufacturing Report respondents believe collaboration across sectors is important too.

HP’s 3D printing business is fond of a partnership. It has a network of them working to develop materials for its Multi Jet Fusion platform, it works with Siemens on the software side of things and Rosler on automated post-processing solutions – the first product from which is not very far away, per Pastor. But encouragement to collaborate in the additive manufacturing sector is barely necessary. Each material supplier has more than a handful of alliances with hardware vendors, as does each post-processing firm and each software vendor, whether they’re product design solution providers or workflows solution providers. Then there are the ecosystems like that of EOS or XponentialWorks, the sustainability initiatives like that headed by the AMGTA and a myriad of research and development consortiums like Polyline and IDAM. The partnerships in this space exist. What’s needed is productivity.

“Partnerships are very nice. But you always need to go with what are the fundamentals this partnership is trying to solve. [There needs to be] an alignment of vision, but also [you need to ask] are we integrated? Are the teams working together? Do we have opportunities to solve a fundamental customer problem? You need different parts of the ecosystem that are complementary, and you need the same vision. Now, this is necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to go three levels down have the teams work together and the same with the customers, working in a triangle. These are the ones that work.”

At an earlier stage, HP looks to understand. It is said to be quite active in primary and secondary research efforts, as it looks to, on the one hand, show the manufacturing industry the momentum 3D printing is building up and, on the other, ascertain which market opportunities to target, bearing in mind the varying adoption cycles across consumer goods (one year), automotive (three to five years) and aerospace (five to seven years), among others.

As Pastor sat with his colleagues on a virtual panel session at the HP Innovation Summit, the above industries were outlined, along with the medical and wellness space, as the sectors which have the most potential for additive manufacturing innovation. For some, as early adopters and pioneers, they’re always in the conversation. For others, the demand for mass customisation ought to lend itself nicely to 3D printing technology. “More and more, people expect to have a personalised experience when they buy a product or service,” Pastor assesses. “This is what 3D printing can do. Personalisation at scale. We think we are at the edge of doing this.”

Indeed, in HP’s Digital manufacturing Report, more than 90% said they are looking to explore how mass customisation enabled by 3D printing could apply to their business. But what has long been considered the killer application of additive manufacturing technologies, has not quite yet materialised as such. Customised hearing aids and dental aligners are currently mass customised by multiple manufacturers, while there’s plenty of potential for footwear insoles to go the same way too, but they all come at a significant premium compared to standard products. For mass customisation to apply to other medical, wellness and consumer products, the belief is that has to change.

“Personalisation is king. And people are willing to pay a little more for customisation, but not that much more. This is where 3D printing needs to go down in costs. It’s one of our major areas of focus, how to drive the cost per part to a point that there’s a small delta between a generic product and a personalised product. The ability to automate personalisation is also a big deal: the MES system in factories, the ERP system in factories, the way you go from design through to production is not automated. If every one of the parts must be different, there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of inefficiencies. We’re missing the broad ecosystem we need to solve this. But once we solve the economics and once we solve the automation of personalisation, this will [scale]. I have no doubt about this.”

With a similar level of confidence, Pastor expects future editions of the Digital Manufacturing Report to represent a significant increase in the application of 3D printing technologies. And, as such, he hopes to be showcasing a range of mass customised products enabled by the technology in person, rather than a respirator product virtually; a gloomy sign of the times that collides with his Zoom background. Within the next five years, he expects there to be much change in the additive manufacturing sector.

“The biggest indicator is that we change the questions so it’s not so much what is the intention for the future, but what have you done? That’s what I expect the big change to be,” Pastor finishes. “First, we were talking visions and intentions and awareness. I think that we’ve moved through this and in the next few years, we’ll see the scaling of applications like we haven’t seen before. Today, there are very few applications that have really scaled. But I’m convinced that within the next few years, there will be a bunch of new applications that have scaled. To hundreds of thousands or millions of parts. Because all the barriers to move to mass personalisation will be lowered and we’ll be able to find these mass customisation applications.”

More information on the HP Digital Manufacturing Report 2020 can be found here. 

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