The Red Sea, historically renowned as a vital sea route connecting the East and the West, finds itself at the center of a complex crisis triggered by escalating geopolitical tensions. Since October 2023, militants associated with the Houthi movement have intensified attacks on commercial vessels navigating these waters. Consequently, multinational corporations are reevaluating their maritime strategies, diverting shipping away from the traditional Red Sea-Suez Canal route due to heightened security risks. This shift in traffic patterns has introduced unprecedented challenges to global supply chains, exacerbating economic and logistical strains.

One of the most immediate consequences is the rerouting of ships away from the traditional Red Sea-Suez Canal route to the Horn of Africa, as companies seek to mitigate the risks posed by Houthi attacks. However, this detour leads to substantial logistical complexities and increased costs, adding approximately 6000 nautical miles to the journey from Asia to Europe. This has triggered a domino effect of disruptions throughout the global supply chain. Product deliveries, previously streamlined through the Suez Canal’s expedited route, are now subject to prolonged delays, ranging up to three to four weeks.

These delays have profound implications for industries whose value creation is based on just-in-time deliveries of goods and components, leading to increased production costs due to higher transport rates and a reduction in turnover due to production stoppages and prolonged delivery times. Moreover, the rerouting of hundreds of cargo ships around the Horn of Africa has strained maritime infrastructure and resources, exacerbating congestion at ports and amplifying operational inefficiencies. Lastly, this also increases the environmental footprint, leading to higher carbon emissions with each additional mile travelled.

In response to the escalating crisis, governments have initiated measures to safeguard maritime interests and bolster supply chain resilience. Despite these efforts, the evolving nature of the conflict underscores the need for innovative solutions that can mitigate the impact of disruptions and fortify supply chain resilience.

Solutions Toward Higher Resilience

Increasing the buffer in warehouses could minimize the risk of supply gaps but counteract previous efforts to reduce inventory and increase 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, it is very likely that all suppliers worldwide might be affected by the shortage of basic materials and/or components. A better solution is not only supplier diversification but also diversification in material alternatives.

A third way to improve the resilience of the supply chain is to turn to decentral 3D printing — as witnessed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This saw many manufacturers 3D print critical parts needed to fight COVID-19, such as face shields or valves for respiratory devices. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes reliant on centralized factories and extensive supply chains, decentralized 3D printing offers a paradigm shift in production dynamics.

3D Printing as a Flexible Production Method

3D printing enables the shift from physical to digital inventory. (Image: Replique)

Additive manufacturing (AM) produces a part layer by layer via a digital file. 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-printing service bureau for fast, cost-effective production in the needed amount. In the case of supply chain disruptions, 3D printing could be used as so-called bridge manufacturing, meaning bridging the gap between current customer demand and late deliveries of respective parts due to supply chain disruptions. Here, 3D printing is only used when the traditional manufacturing method is not possible.

If economically viable, however, AM could also be introduced as the main manufacturing method. Here, a TCO analysis is necessary taking all costs into account, such as inventory costs, fixed costs for patterns and molds, shipping costs, and downtime costs. For example, the higher shipping rates rise, the less expensive AM will get when printing the part locally where it is needed. It shows that 3D printing especially works for low-volume parts, as 3D printing does not require a mold or a pattern, and therefore, leads to significantly lower fixed costs.

Shift from Physical to Digital Inventories

A decentralized production platform gives access to 3D printing service bureaus worldwide. (Image: Replique)

By embracing decentralized 3D printing, companies can seamlessly transition from physical to digital inventories. Rather than stockpiling vast quantities of parts in warehouses, companies can leverage 3D printing to produce parts on-demand and locally, precisely when they are needed. This shift not only optimizes inventory levels but also enhances operational efficiency by reducing the overhead costs associated with maintaining and managing physical inventories.

Moreover, digitalized inventories offer greater flexibility and agility in responding to fluctuating demand patterns and supply chain disruptions. Companies can swiftly adapt production schedules and prioritize the manufacturing of critical components in real-time, ensuring continuity in operations and minimizing downtime.

Worldwide Production via 3D Printing

By producing only what is needed when it is needed, companies can achieve greater efficiency and sustainability in their operations. (Image: Replique)

With AM, it is possible to produce a wide range of different products on a single printer, offering unprecedented flexibility and scalability in production operations. By leveraging AM technologies, companies can establish their production facilities around the world, strategically located to cater to regional markets and customer demands.

This decentralized production model not only reduces shipping time and costs but also mitigates the influence of supply chain disruptions by diversifying production sources and minimizing reliance on centralized manufacturing hubs. Thanks to local production, it further reduces carbon emissions during transportation.

Cost-Efficient Production of Small Batch Sizes

Traditionally, the economics of manufacturing dictate that producing small batch sizes is not economically viable due to high setup costs and inefficiencies associated with traditional production methods. However, AM unlocks new possibilities by significantly reducing setup costs and enabling cost-effective production. By producing only what is needed when it is needed, companies can achieve greater efficiency and sustainability in their operations.

Benefits of a Production Platform

Small series can be produced cost-efficiently and on-demand. (Image: Replique)

Leveraging a service platform offers companies access to a comprehensive suite of technologies and materials without the need for significant upfront investment. Furthermore, they do not have to find and manage the right partners themselves but gain access to them through just one point of contact. Companies can tap into a vast ecosystem of 3D-printing capabilities, ranging from polymer-based printing to metal AM.

This access to a diverse range of technologies and materials enables companies to select the most suitable manufacturing processes and materials for their specific application requirements. Moreover, partnering with a digital platform, to which qualified service providers and suppliers are connected, can ensure quality assurance, mitigating the risk of defects or inconsistencies in 3D-printed parts. By working with certified partners and adhering to stringent quality standards, companies can ensure the reliability and performance of AM processes.

In conclusion, the adoption of decentralized 3D printing offers many opportunities for enhancing agility in an increasingly volatile and uncertain global landscape. As companies navigate the challenges of the Red Sea crisis and beyond, embracing AM represents a strategic imperative for building resilient and future-ready supply chains.

This article was written by Dr. Henrike Wonneberger, COO and Co-Founder of Replique (Mannheim, Germany). For more information, visit here .