Fixing the global supply chain

Posted on 6 Jan 2023 by Joe Bush

Recent global crises starkly show that the way we currently produce goods and bring them to market isn’t fit for purpose. Theo Saville, CEO and founder, CloudNC explains.

Before COVID-19, the extent of the problem within the supply chain was already clear. Western manufacturing capacity has been hollowed out by globalisation, as cheap labour overseas reduces the ability of developed countries to compete. As a result, domestic production has dwindled away, and weak career prospects mean workers aren’t being replaced as they retire, compounding the decline.

Cloud CNC
In 2023 CloudNC will offer new software that will greatly accelerate how quickly and easily a new component can be programmed for a CNC machine, shortening the production process by hours

As a result, when crises happen and we need manufacturing to step up, the sector’s not been in a fit state to help. When COVID-19 hit in earnest, hospitals desperately needed ventilators – but countries like the US and UK didn’t have the capacity or ability to make them quickly and efficiently. Only a massive global mobilisation effort – involving procurement from thousands of suppliers – scrambled together what was required, at vast expense, and not quite on time.

Since 2020, the conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing effects of Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis have further stretched global supply chains to breaking point. In the UK – where we expect to be able to get what we want, when we want – in recent months we’ve run short of commodities like eggs, petrol and toilet paper, as well as microchips, cars and games consoles.

Can we fix our supply chain problems? Or is how we make what the world needs broken forever?

Trusting the production process

For answers, policymakers will naturally look at the big picture: how to protect domestic industries with measures like trade barriers, tax incentives and talent development schemes.

However, measures like these cure only the symptoms of the disease, not the cause. We need to make manufacturing itself faster and more efficient so that when global crises hit, the sector becomes part of the solution, and not the problem.

Today, how everyone makes manufactured goods is pretty inefficient. For example, any metal component that comprises part of a larger item – a smartphone or laptop case, or a housing that connects a seat to a chassis – is made in a CNC machine.

A CNC machine isn’t easy to use. The interface is complicated and non-intuitive, and it requires a great amount of expertise to operate efficiently. Even a simple component can be made in billions of possible ways, and if the machine is programmed non-optimally then the manufacturer wastes resources – both time and materials.

Estimates suggest that because of those problems, and combined with the further scheduling issues they create, many factories may run at as little as ten percent of their theoretical capacity.

In other words, there’s a huge amount of redundancy built into the current system. If we could remove that – for example, by improving scheduling, tool usage or operator ability – we could dramatically improve how effectively manufacturers are able to operate.

Theo commented: “At our company, CloudNC, we’re currently working on solutions for all of those problems. For example, in 2023, we’ll offer new software that will greatly accelerate how quickly and easily a new component can be programmed for a CNC machine, shortening the production process by hours.

“In time, we hope to enable manufacturers to produce anything they want with a single click, potentially making factories up to ten times more efficient than they are today.”

The future of the supply chain

Let’s assume that in the near-term, innovations like this will help make factories operate more efficiently. What does that mean?

Immediately, more cost-effective production processes level the global playing field, meaning factories in countries like the US and UK are again able to compete on price against their counterparts on the other side of the world.

In turn, a stronger domestic sector means shorter supply chains, reducing the overall environmental footprint, while also reducing the threat posed both by disruptive global crises like the Ukraine conflict, or the Suez Canal blockage in 2021.

It is the hope of CloudNC that in time, manufacturers will be able to produce anything they want with a single click, potentially making factories up to ten times more efficient than they are today

However, what about the manufacturing talent gap, estimated to hit 2.1 million jobs in the US alone by 2030? Well, with technological progress, we can make the current production process easier and simpler, meaning workers with less skill and experience can still produce high-quality components accurately and reliably.

Add all those together, and you have a manufacturing sector fit for purpose – able to produce goods efficiently, effectively and in a way that’s better for the environment. However, perhaps more importantly, the industry stops being a bottleneck that prevents the world innovating.

Today, bringing a new product to market (from conception to production) might take two years. What if that wasn’t the case, and the manufacturing sector was able to operate more like the digital world – if we think of something, we can create it?

It’s a future where supply chain issues don’t constrain innovation, and when we need products, we can get them. With technological advances, getting to that point is within touching distance: in time, we will live in a world where, when we urgently need ventilators or other equipment to alleviate a global crisis, we will be able to push a button and get them, delivered by a manufacturing sector operating seamlessly and efficiently.

Theo SavilleTheo Saville is a Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineer (M.Eng, University of Warwick), with a background in defence, advanced laser-based metals 3D printing research at Warwick Manufacturing Group, and sales. Theo entered metals 3D printing expecting to be able to harness a technology ready to disrupt manufacturing, but gradually became disillusioned with the state and future applicability of the technology. He was exposed to CNC machining around the same time and realised the disruptive potential if it could be automated to the same degree as plastics 3D printing, and he co-founded CloudNC to realise that opportunity. Theo was recognised in the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 in Manufacturing & Industry.

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