Bridging the manufacturing gap

In this article Dr Henrike Wonneberger COO and co-founder of BASF-owned, digital supply chain specialist Replique, discusses the concept of ‘bridge’ manufacturing with the aid of 3D printing. The system enables parts to be supplied on-demand when there is unexpected need or stock is low. Parts are sourced from the supply chain through a global, decentralised and secured additive manufacturing network.


Optimising the supply chain contains huge potential for OEMs to increase profitability. Reducing inventory costs with punctual delivery has been, for many years, the focus of supply chain management. Over the years, supply chains have been optimised to perfection, using algorithms and digital tools, but it is balanced on a knife edge. Covid 19 and the subsequent closing of borders revealed the limits of planning and the fragility of supply chains to suppliers, OEMs, and end customers.

Mitigating supply chain risk

When a part is needed urgently, every hour can cost manufacturers hundreds and thousands of pounds with the cost of the spare part itself often negligible compared to the economic and reputational damage caused by its absence. Increasing the buffer in warehouses can minimise the risk of supply gaps, but counteracts previous efforts to reduce inventory and increases tied up capital, warehousing costs and obsolescence.

Another option is to source from several suppliers in multiple locations; should one supplier fail; others can cover the demand. However, interconnected global supply chains are often dependent upon a few suppliers of basic materials. Subsequently, for specific parts or components, all worldwide suppliers might be affected by the material shortage. A better solution is not only supplier diversification, but also in material alternatives.

A third way to improve the resilience of the supply chain is to return to localised manufacturing – as witnessed at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic. This saw many manufacturers 3D print critical parts needed to fight the virus such as face shields or valves for respiratory devices. This manufacturing philosophy, named ‘bridge’ manufacturing, can be used as a blueprint to generally improve supply chain resilience.

Dr Henrike Wonneberger COO and co-founder of digital supply chain specialist Replique

Essentially, bridge manufacturing means having a technically viable alternative to bridge a gap. This gap can be economic if other technologies are too expensive, or an availability gap, if parts produced in another manufacturing technology are unavailable. Bridge manufacturing requires a manufacturing alternative for the part that allows on-demand, decentralised production. This ensures the part can easily be made available anywhere globally in the event of a sudden unexpected shortage. Consequently, should supply chains be disrupted, the OEM or supplier has alternative options, potentially saving money and reputation. As a concept, bridge manufacturing comprises three different types: provisional solution, equivalent manufacturing solution, and ramp-up/phase-out bridging.

Provisional solutions

Well known in dentistry, this is where a transitional prosthesis – using a different material and a different technology – is provided as a makeshift solution while the actual prosthesis is manufactured. Requirements for a makeshift solution are often lesser than for the original, making bridge manufacturing a second-best alternative from a technological standpoint.

Whether a part is used as a stop-gap until the original spare part is delivered, or until it breaks down and is replaced by a genuine spare part, bridge manufacturing takes place in parallel to ordering a standard spare part. When the bridge part is used the machine downtime is reduced in the same way, saving the OEM money and reputation.

Equivalent manufacturing

However, in most cases bridge manufacturing can meet all requirements and specifications of the original part. In this case, bridge manufacturing might be more expensive in a regular supply chain situation, making it inappropriate for standard production, but it does have certain advantages when other constraints occur. For example, a polymer part can be manufactured at low cost per part in large quantities in a central location.

In the event of global supply chain disruption when the part is needed overseas, this can be bridged by localised 3D printing close to where it’s needed, probably in low quantities. If the manufacturing alternative was set up conforming to specifications, a part produced correspondingly might last as long as an original, eliminating the need to parallel order the that spare part.

Ramp-up/phase-out bridging

Change in demand over a product’s lifecycle can vary drastically and upon launch, it’s hard to forecast future demand. It could boom or stay at moderate volume. For small and mid-volume series, additive manufacturing is an attractive option throughout the whole lifecycle.

If product demand rises quickly, manufacturing methods like injection moulding are best from a price-per-part standpoint. However, once manufacturing alternatives are in place, bridge manufacturing can enable companies to switch as needed to optimise manufacturing costs.

The most viable option for bridge manufacturing is 3D printing  which has become increasingly popular

3D printing is often favourable upon a product’s launch when only small quantities are needed, but when demand increases the OEM will likely benefit from another more cost-effective manufacturing method. Towards the end of the lifecycle, when demand decreases, the OEM can easily switch back to 3D printing.

With bridge manufacturing another benefit is that it does not need significant ramp-up time. Additive production is flexible in terms of quantities and is not location-independent. Few manufacturing technologies meet these criteria; injection moulding, requires high tooling investments and ramp-up-time before production can start. Milling can be expensive and material-intense, and is limited regarding geometries and complex structures.

Adding value with additive manufacturing

The most viable option for bridge production is additive manufacturing and in the last years 3D printing has become increasingly popular, especially for industrial applications.

Once a part is qualified and print parameters are set, it does not need any ramp up but can simply be sent securely to a 3D print service bureau anywhere around the globe for fast, cost-effective production. That’s to say, exactly where the part is needed, when it is needed and in the precise quantity needed – even a lot size of just one. It is these basic principles of 3D printing that continue to make it an agile and benefit-enhancing option for low-volume manufacturing requirements among OEMs large and small.




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