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Reshoring the Supply Chain, Edge-Computing Style

July 19, 2021
Emerging tech can help break down the vast centralized supply chains we see today.

U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced a new plan focused on improving our supply chain and expanding domestic manufacturing efforts in industries including lumber, semiconductors, batteries, and poultry that are experiencing worldwide supply chain issues. The supply chain disruptions that the Biden administration is looking to address are hardly unique, though.

In late March, the massive Ever Given container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal, bringing traffic through one of the busiest shipping channels in the world to a standstill for nearly a week and is still causing supply chain issues. While this is a particularly egregious example of supply chain issues, the last year has seen logistical snarls related to everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to global shortages of plastics, semiconductors and even dog food—all of which suggest supply chain woes may be a regular part of life going forward.

This new reality suggests that it's well past time for global industries to rethink how their supply chains work. Fortunately, emerging technology exists not only to make industry more efficient, but more sustainable as well. This requires a new way of thinking, not only for companies faced with massive supply chain problems currently, but for companies looking to predict and solve for those problems.

Exploring the Edge

From smart sensors to artificial intelligence, new technologies are transforming the way the world thinks about manufacturing through digitization—and allowing new industries and companies to emerge as they rethink how we make things from the ground up.

Reimagining supply chains for the digital age, however, isn’t simply a question of rerouting cargo ships or redesigning trucking schedules. Rather, the goal is to break down the vast centralized supply chains we see today and relocate them to “the edge.” That concept, borrowed from edge computing, would see companies shift away from the practice of shipping raw materials and parts around the globe and instead moving supply chains—and the factories they support—closer to consumers and end users.

Reducing the reliance on far-flung networks not only decreases the chance of future supply chain disruptions, but also results in significantly lower emissions. As supply chains are reimagined, so too can the factories they support be re-invented into “smart” manufacturing centers. Biden addresses this concept directly in his report, where he discusses multiple ways that the federal government and other entities can and should support bringing our precious supply chains back to the U.S.

Digital networks, real-time data collection and technologies like artificial intelligence and IoT would allow smart factories to become enormously flexible, able to improve processes and address changing customer demands on the fly.

How Easy Is It Being Green?

For decades, the prevailing model of manufacturing was one in which factories co-located to form massive industrial centers. Though ideal for creating massive economies of scale, those manufacturing hubs also came with significant overhead demands. From the energy needed to keep buildings running to material waste to the need to create, maintain and store expensive, heavy tooling, those centers demanded significant time and cost.

Beyond easing supply chain and shipping concerns that come with global supply chains and industrial-center-reliant industries, edge-based supply chains also allow manufacturers to bring the factory floor closer to consumers, further reducing the need to ship parts and products great distances. This has an impact on the carbon footprint of businesses, an issue at the forefront of consumers’ minds. The digital factory of the future must be designed with sustainable initiatives as a main priority.

COVID Concerns

As future supply chain disruptions occur, new ways of approaching the supply chain through advanced technologies will offer a preventative roadmap for how to address them. I have a personal connection to this problem – as many people know, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world faced a crisis beyond just healthcare concerns. Supply chains everywhere were snarling to a complete halt in some cases.

In this specific example, the largest supplier of nasopharyngeal swabs—a critical consumable used in testing for the virus—had closed its doors as the virus swept through Italy. In response to that supply chain challenge, our 3D printing community stepped up—within days, new swab designs were created and tested, and designs were shared across the world, available for immediate printing close to the hospitals that needed them and without reliance on global shipping. The result was a worldwide effort to produce 3D printed swabs that enabled widespread COVID testing and improved tracking of the pandemic as it swept across the globe.

The day is fast approaching when our current approach to the supply chain will be rendered useless, and the effects of climate change will be irreversible. It’s mandatory that the government continue to step up and address the challenges facing us going forward. It is also incumbent upon manufacturers and technology leaders to take the steps they can to reimagine the way we look at and approach our global supply chain, or else continue to face the consequences we’re experiencing now. 

Jonah Myerberg is chief technology officer, Desktop Metal.

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