Two years ago, just before the arrival of Covid-19, HP opened a new 150,000-square-foot excellence center for 3D printing and digital production in Sant Cugat, Barcelona. The new center, expanding existing design and innovation facilities for wide-format and 3D printing already available in the region, hosts experts and engineers from 40 countries working in world-class R&D, engineering, collaborative development and sustainable Innovations for Industry 4.0.
The pandemic has disrupted most companies around the world, and HP is no exception. Initial blockages halted research and production, creating new challenges for the supply chain: production, logistics and access to the necessary materials and components.
Due to a shortage of medical equipment and supplies, HP, like other manufacturing technology companies, immediately began designing and manufacturing critical hospital and protective equipment. Its 3D printing technology allows it to share designs and copy new parts around the world, where service providers and manufacturers with HP technology can produce the parts and products they need on site where needed.
Today, resuming normal operation is extremely difficult for HP. The shortage of raw materials and semiconductors and the provocative logistical disruptions have affected the production of existing products and the development of new ones.
According to Ramon Pastor, global manager and general manager of HP 3D Metal and general manager of the HP website in Barcelona, they have “failed miserably” in resuming operations due to the unprecedented and unforeseen situation. HP is now changing the product design process to make it more flexible and adding stress tests to its supply chain.
EPSNews Fellow Pablo Valerio had the opportunity to visit the facilities of Sant Cugat and talk to Pastor about these challenges, how different industries perceive distributed production and what follows for 3D printing technology, including metals.
The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the first part of our conversation with Ramon Pastor.
EPSNews: The supply chain is causing most corporations today: shortages of materials and semiconductors, logistics, manufacturing.
At the same time, the pandemic has increased the demand for local production and the transfer of some industries. How is HP responding to this new push for local parts and materials production?
Ramon Pastor: For us, the pandemic was probably the first time that traditional supply chains were challenged in this way. And we have been really lucky in recent decades to have very, very stable supply and very stable demand.
But really what happened during the pandemic, if you really think about it, was the jump in demand in certain areas, such as medical supplies. This was a significant, unforeseen demand for certain things and a significant distortion of the supply chain due to the closure of factories.
At HP, especially in 3D printing, we decided to stop many of our projects and focus on helping the medical supplies situation. We started designing medical supplies where we were not experts, but over time we created respirators, bifurcators, masks, tampons, etc. We realized that not only was it much faster to go from design to production, but once we had the design, we could send it to our network of service providers who have our technology so they can produce locally. They could produce on the spot what they need when they need it.
That was one key thing we learned. The second key to learning is how easy it is to transfer what you do to something new with 3D printing. We had a client, for example, who made alignments. In a week they went from making liners to making tampons. So, what we have learned is that in distributed production it is important to be aware of local realities, but also the flexibility of your production lines is crucial.
If you have an injection molding machine and you are producing one thing, you can do just that. If you have a much more flexible production method, you can produce something one day and another product the next day.
EPSNews: How about your own supply chain to make your own products?
Ramon Pastor: In fact, we failed miserably – we all had business continuity plans (PPPs), we had BCPs! Everyone had a border checkpoint. But no one could have foreseen what had happened.
So what we’re doing right now is putting better stress tests on our supply chain. We are trying to imitate what happened after the European debt crisis. Banks now need to do stress tests. We are trying to do the same. We have defined vectors of what might happen and are testing our supply chain. We are learning how to add more flexibility, more duplication, more geographical scope, much more flexible production methods and much better data connectivity. So we include our thinking as many, many companies.
EPSNews: Following the first question, what about other manufacturers looking at 3D printing, such as car manufacturers?
We are talking about people who make something that requires a lot of parts, some plastic parts and other materials. Are they more interested in local production than before?
Ramon Pastor: They are. They are. Now local production has its limits. The more parts you can produce that are similar to the final product, the more you can do distributed production.
If you have very complex production lines, there are still some economies of scale that you can’t allocate in the flow, but maybe instead of having a central hub, you can have two or three hubs, but not to the last mile.
So the decision on whether this is the last mile, whether it is based on the region, or based on continuity, or a central location, usually in Asia, depends on economies of scale, complexity, tools needed for quality installation and what is the ultimate value for money response time. And this is very different in different industries.
EPSNews: Back to your own supply chain, you mentioned before the problem with the production of specific products due to the lack of materials and semiconductors. There are many challenges and it will take some time to return to regular forecasts and delivery times. How do you handle this situation for your new products?
Ramon Pastor: This is a great question. First, because there are many shortages in raw materials and certain long lead times, we are actually changing the process of developing new products. We don’t start where we traditionally start, which is basically making a brick board first to demonstrate the viability or feasibility of the technology, then the first prototype, then the iteration.
Now, from the very beginning, we begin to think: what are the long parts to perform? What are the subsystems for a long time?
Usually we start designing the most critical, the more difficult to implement. Now we start with the long part of the execution time. Also, a little bit of how we think about growth. We are making richer production strategies.
In many cases, especially when we go to large volumes, we make many investments, millions of dollars, in hard instruments. Now we can start earlier with the production of bridges, or with soft tools, or with 3D printing, knowing that this may not make economic sense in the future, but it allows us to save time and reduce time to market .
In Part 2, Pastor discusses metal 3D printing and customization.