Emphasizing the Role of 3D Printing in the Newly Published UK Critical Imports and Supply Chain Strategy

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The Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has recently published the Critical Imports and Supply Chain strategy. This strategy represents the UK’s premier initiative that is aimed at safeguarding access to vital commodities. Under this plan, the government will establish a Critical Imports Council.

3D Printing Industry engaged with the DBT to gain insights into how 3D printing is utilized to lessen supply chain risks. A spokesperson for the DBT stated, “Technological advancements, like those introduced by the 3D printing sector, hold the power to revolutionize supply chains and their functioning, paving the way for a robust and resilient economy.”

This policy document arrives in the wake of threats to imports, such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, continued strife in Ukraine, attacks on freight shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and escalating tension in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. The strategy was also driven by disruptions linked to climate change, protectionist trade policies, and other unanticipated events.

Building upon preceding collaborative efforts on critical supply chains between governments, this new strategy identifies five central priorities for bolstering the resilience of supply chains for businesses involved in importing. It aims to secure the nation’s global supply of critical goods, including medicines, minerals, and semiconductors.

These involve transforming the UK into a hub for supply chain analysis and risk management, eliminating import restrictions, enhancing the country’s ability to handle supply chain disruptions, adapting to long-term trends, and fostering cooperation among government, businesses, and academia.

In line with these priorities, the DBT emphasizes the evolution and wider use of 3D printing as essential for moving the production of critical goods back onshore. “Through the Critical Imports and Supply Chains Strategy, we’re looking into opportunities to establish local capacity for producing critical items and decrease our dependence on concentrated imports, where it makes economic sense,” stated the DBT representative.

A novel approach to safeguarding global supply chains

The Critical Imports Council will collaborate with firms to enhance supply chain problem analysis, pinpointing risks to the most vulnerable imports and developing contingency plans.

A fresh series of measures will also be initiated to “determine, scrutinize and where possible abolish import hurdles.” This will incorporate the establishment of a new “critical import hindrance reporting method,” which will permit firms to influence government efforts to ease import difficulties.   

The supply chain strategy augments the UK Government’s prior efforts to broaden the utilization of additive manufacturing in the UK’s industrial sector. 

The Business and Trade Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Plan, released in November 2023, emphasized the necessity of expanding additive manufacturing within the scope of its Industry 4.0 ambitions. In this context, the Government seeks to enable UK firms to streamline and mechanize their production procedures utilizing technologies such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence (AI). 

The Department first committed to the Industry 4.0 initiative in its 2017 Made Smarter Review. This review outlined that additive manufacturing is actively disrupting traditional manufacturing processes within UK-based industries such as aerospace, maritime and automotive, and defense.

More recently, Dame Angela McClean authored a Pro-Innovation Regulation of Technologies Review. This highlighted the need to remove remaining constraints on the use of additive manufacturing by UK-based manufacturers.

The recommendations included agreeing a national approach and regulatory framework regarding the use of additive manufacturing, which keeps pace with further technological advances. Specifically, the review noted that newly defined standards for the additive manufacturing process could lower the cost for businesses, and accelerate the pace of production.

McClean also recommended that the UK should directly engage with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other international regulatory bodies to influence global 3D printing standards. The UK Government has subsequently accepted these recommendations, acknowledging the need for cross-sector engagement in additive manufacturing.

State-operated 3D printing entities such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Manufacturing Technology Centre, inclusive of the National Centre for Additive Manufacturing (NCAM), are anticipated to significantly contribute to this involvement. NCAM capabilities can be harnessed by UK manufacturers for prototyping or initial production runs.   

Strengthening supply chains with additive manufacturing  

The Department for Business and Trade isn’t the sole UK Government agency implementing additive manufacturing to alleviate supply chain disruptions. In December 2023, UK-based 3D printing SME Additive Manufacturing Solutions Ltd. (AMS) announced a partnership with the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Defence Equipment Sales Authority (DESA).  

The partnership enables AMS to investigate the potential to reclaim important materials from surplus Defence Assets. In this project, AMS will first cooperate with an undisclosed MoD supplier in order to showcase geometry that uses recycled 3D printing materials. Following this, AMS will shift its attention towards material industrialization and accreditation. This is just the initial phase of a lasting project which the MoD believes will improve its understanding and management of present and future material sourcing strategies.

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