Since the 1980s, UK Manufacturing has increasingly moved offshore, with a vast share of goods being produced in countries such as China, India or Bangladesh. Couple this with the fact that any ‘finished’ product will often go through different production stages, each of which can be carried out in various parts of the world, and you are often left with supply chain scenarios that have taken on near absurd scales.
Take the example of cotton wool balls you see in hospitals across Britain. Seemingly innocuous on the face of it. However, as Nick Rich, Professor in Operations Management at Swansea University highlights: the cotton wool itself is sourced from China, before being sent to Germany via a 42 day journey over the sea. In Germany the product is sterilised and then sent to the UK. A nurse may use a couple of the pack of 10 before disposing of the remainder.
Across many industries such practice is commonplace and increasingly unsustainable due to rising transport costs, increasing wages in previously low cost labour countries, and a surge in global risk factors, such as natural disasters, economic uncertainty and security threats.
You may think that we could probably easily find an alternative to Chinese/German produced cotton wool balls if the main suppliers were hit by a natural disaster or simply became too expensive because of fluctuations in the currency market. But what about something vital, like a vaccine? In the West we take it for granted that there is a readily available cure for most common illnesses. However, in reality the supply chain for vaccines is particularly vulnerable to the risk of disruption.
Raw materials are in control of a limited number of suppliers; losing just one of them can have severe consequences. A sudden change in demand, caused by a pandemic or a virus mutation can further leave companies scrambling to identify additional suppliers, a task made even more difficult by rigorous regulations. Conversely, a fall in demand causes yet more issues, with firms oversupplied with products that have a limited shelf life, ultimately leading to more waste.
The good news is that it looks like the “4th Industrial Revolution” is coming to our rescue. What started with the development of the steam engine in the 18th century has since re-invented itself twice, first with the rise of mass manufacturing in the 20th century, and then with the further automation of production lines.
According to some industry experts, the dawn of the next industrial revolution, or “Industry 4.0” as it’s called, is well on its way. It is made possible by new technologies, such as Big Data, Additive Manufacturing, Cloud Computing, the Internet of Things, Mobile Internet and Advanced and Autonomous Robotics. Experts expect that, over time, these factors will lead to a more decentralised manufacturing system, called redistributed manufacturing.
Researchers at the University of Sussex are currently investigating how technologies like additive manufacturing can enhance the resilience of the vaccine and pharmaceutical supply chain. A particular focus is on ending supplier dependency with the help of redistributed manufacturing (RDM) and the development and location of micro-factories.
RDM has not only the advantage of being more resilient when it comes to global risks, but also offers radically reduced lead times and more scope to customise products to better meet the consumers’ needs.
Redistributed Manufacturing and 3D Printing can, for example, revolutionise the way we manufacture orthotics for children. With a current waiting time of around 13 weeks, children tend to have almost outgrown their ortheses when they finally receive them. Startup Businesses like Andiamo have recognised this problem and are now using 3D printing technologies to produce customised orthotics within a 48-hour lead-time.
There are platforms out there that make it surprisingly easy for startups and product designers to make their ideas a reality: 3D Hubs is on a mission to connect all 3D printers globally and make them locally accessible. The site was originally launched in 2013 “out of the frustration that the industry was not delivering on the promise of 3D printing to decentralise manufacturing”. Two years on it’s operating a network of 3D Printers in over 20,000 locations in more than 150 countries: a whole community that is using their own initiative to take redistributed manufacturing to the next level.
Even the greatest cynic may be struggling to deny the benefits of RDM: less exposure to global supply chain risks, drastically reduced lead times, better customisation, reduced carbon emissions and less material waste (e.g. for packaging). Change is certainly on its way, both at grassroots and industry level. Companies have to ask themselves how they are going to respond to stay competitive. Previous examples, such as the Aravind Eye Care System, have shown how medical treatments can be revolutionised and made accessible to a much wider audience at a considerably lower cost. The competitiveness of UK Healthcare Manufacturers in the age of Industry 4.0 will very much depend on their willingness and ability to innovate.