Coming to terms with the ‘new normal’

4 mins read

Essentium’s CEO, Blake Teipel, talks to Neil Tyler about how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted the company and the wider supply chain.

The impact of Covid-19 has been unprecedented in its scale and businesses have both had to adapt rapidly in order to survive or to address, in some cases, urgent new market requirements.

One sector that has received a significant boost from the pandemic is 3D printing. In the UK RS Components, for example, has established in partnership with the National 3D Printing Society (N3DPS), a 3D printing farm in Corby, Northamptonshire, with the capability of producing over 1,000 NHS-accepted protective visors, to help shield medical and care professionals at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

In the US 3D printing specialist, Essentium, is among a growing number of companies that have pivoted production and by working closely with both Federal and State authorities been able to design, test and produce 3D printed PPE masks.

According to Blake Teipel, CEO of Essentium, ”Our business can be described as a full stack hardware company; we not only design and engineer the printer, we also write the software and produce our own materials.

“Traditional markets have included aerospace and footwear and now, as a result of the pandemic, we are seeing rapid growth in healthcare. In the last few weeks we have seen our business really take off, despite issues with sourcing - we have a global supply chain for many of our components and that has had an impact on the business.

“The general perception of public health has also changed and we’ve looked to respond by trying to scale our business to meet these new demands.

“The company has shifted production and we’re now focused on delivering safe and effective PPE using our classic TPU-74d printers. The design we followed allows us to print PPE on our printers, so we can get as many masks out there as is possible.”

Teipel acknowledges the speed with which the authorities in Texas responded to the unfolding crisis, and compares it favourably to the much slower reaction of states such as New York and New Jersey.

“While the pandemic was still in its infancy the Governor of Texas asked the National Guard to work with local businesses to help combat the mask shortage – at the time we were short of over 9m mask. They made the call to incubators, SMEs and start-ups in the technology sector to see how we could help with delivering PPE and were looking for a co-ordinated response at a time when the supply chain was under severe strain and, in many respects, was broken.”

With supply chains in turmoil many essential departments in Texas were unable to source PPE, so the company’s first deliveries were to the local police department where rates of infection among police officers were extremely high.

“By supplying the police services with PPE it meant that essential medical PPE could be directed to hospitals and staff on the frontline combating the disease,” said Teipel.

“We’ve not only had police departments and city workers reach out to us but other large manufacturers too. We’ve had to change our supply chain as well as amend our product line.

“The initiative here in Texas to address the shortage of PPE has been highly effective.”

The US Government at Federal level has spent billions on ‘tapping’ supply chain experts to better manage the supply chain component. Jets have been chartered to bring in components and materials from Asia, while efforts to source and identify suppliers both locally and internationally have been accelerated.

According to Teipel, domestic production in general has been ramped up.

“Before this crisis hit the US, like many Western economies, didn’t have a particularly robust domestic supply chain. Over many years the US has outsourced much of it and I really believe we will see supply chains being refocused and structured after this.”

When Covid-19 struck the US, it proved to be a wake-up call for many companies, according to Teipel.

“I do think many realised that their supply chains needed to be more flexible and responsive. This crisis has had a major impact on manufacturing here in the US. The cost of air freight from Asia has gone up three fold, and that happened over-night – there was no warning or a gradual ramp up in prices.”

That has been hugely problematic for many businesses.

“It’s been a challenge but we had a good handle on direct materials having pre-procured necessary materials. It does cost a lot of money to be lean!”

Teipel makes the interesting point that when it comes to future customer messaging much of it will be about risk management in the supply chain.

“People will need to understand and better manage risk,” he believes.

Manufacturing PPE

In terms of making the PPE the process was relatively straightforward, as Teipel explains.

“Technically, to make a mask it is quite easy. We had our own materials, the filament and resin were available in house, and we were able to use half of our internal fleet of printers to make the masks.

“The challenge was ensuring the manufacturing process met health and safety standards. So we needed to create ‘pop-up’ clean rooms and to disinfect manufacturing facilities – all of which was a challenge for our internal manufacturing engineers.”

While printing the masks was relatively straightforward it was necessary to source the indirect materials – elastic cords, or zip-up bags – from Asia, so the company had to manage the associated costs.

“Throughout this project we’ve learned an awful lot, whether that’s about how the printers work, how to tweak them to improve performance or simply how to pivot the business at speed and all of this had to be done while the company adhered to strict social distancing policies – over half of the company’s workforce is having to operate from home.”

Looking to the future Teipel believes that there will be profound implications for additives industry.

“Additive manufacturing is still a relatively small sector, it’s worth around $15bn. It’s growing in some sectors by over 30 percent per year and in light of the pandemic I think we’ll see strong growth in the medical sector.”

Teipel expects a ‘W’ shaped recovery suggesting a period of 3-6 months for things to stabilise and for businesses to adapt to a new normal.

“Things will not return to how they were though. I think there will be a tremendous amount of activity over the next few years as manufacturing supply chains look to transition and prop up capabilities in areas where they didn’t exist before and that will really help, not only the 3D printing industry moving forward, but manufacturing in general.

“That shift to a more local supply chain will also be accompanied by a greater focus on network connectivity and improvements in QMS, but there will be a lot of long lasting scarring to the supply chain.”

According to Teipel, “Perhaps we’re suffering from an ‘excess of capitalism’ in that by focusing on a global supply chain and by looking to squeeze efficiency out of every penny spent we’ve neglected to invest sufficiently in managing risk more effectively.”