Overcoming logistics challenges with 3D printing

Overcoming logistics challenges with 3D printing

3D printing is the perfect way to get small volumes of unique parts where they’re needed, quickly. 

In 2020, stretched and fragile logistical supply routes made it impossible to source critical elements of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from China, leaving thousands of medical staff, key workers, and others in the line of duty unprotected against a life-threatening pandemic.

Where the traditional supply chain failed, 3D printing was there to pick up the slack. Designs were shared online, and 3D printers all over the world were pressed into service to supply 3D printed face visors to those who urgently needed them.

 A lot of Prusa Printers use E3D HotEnds! The ‘Prusa Face Shield’ was a popular 3D printed design during 2020. A stacked design variant used the printer’s Z height efficiently so more items could be produced at once. Image credit: PrusaPrinters

Operation RESCRIPT

Alex Champion is E3D’s Lead Application Engineer. Outside his day job at E3D, he works in the British Army reserves.

Following the first lockdown announcement in the UK, Alex borrowed some equipment from E3D’s workshop and rallied his squadron into action to 3D print as much PPE as possible. Hundreds of 3D printed face shields were donated to councils, hospitals, care homes, special needs schools, and charities for the deaf (fabric face masks prevent lip-reading, so transparent visors are preferred).

Lives were protected because of Alex’s initiative, and he was awarded a Chief Of General Staffs Commendation in the New Year’s Honours List. We’re very proud of him!

The British Army were impressed with the potential of 3D printing technology. The armed forces are renowned for their innovative approaches to problem-solving: how to repair things, how to make new things, and how to solve problems in a manufacturing environment are necessary skills to help sustain their forces while abroad. Alex was invited to Army Headquarters to give a talk about 3D printing on behalf of industry so they could get a better understanding of how to manufacture their own equipment.

 Demonstrating a 3D printed part

Alex with Major General Bill O’Leary at the REME Shrivenham Defence Academy


Parts on demand

3D printing offers a way through a great deal of supply chain hassles: with a production time often less than 12 hours, resources that would normally take weeks to be shipped or flown to the right location can be 3D printed on demand with significantly reduced costs.

On-demand production of spare parts also has advantages for maritime operations, shipping, and strategically located facilities around the world. 3D printing is attractive because it offers:

In-field customisation of products or systems. With some basic CAD skills, it’s easy to model custom objects and 3D print them to fit custom applications on-site. This can be used to bolster the lifespan of legacy systems.

Reduced transportation costs. Items are manufactured at the point of need, so don’t need to be transported great distances.

Zero warehousing or administration costs. Items are fabricated when they’re needed, so don’t need to be stored before use.



Operation Trenton: Engineers deployed in South Sudan as part of a UN mission faced difficulties getting resources, and this was slowing the building of a new hospital. 3D printing allowed them to produce engineering parts on site. A lot of LulzBot Printers use E3D HotEnds!

Rewriting policy

Today, Alex is spending his lockdown weekends helping the UK government write its policy on additive manufacturing and logistics. This includes carrying out risk assessments, producing documentation, and delivering the first British Army additive manufacturing training courses.

Alex has given talks about the benefits of 3D printing for the defence sector all over the world, and was recently part of an expert panel for 3D Printing Industry’s 3D Friday Talk Show.


A panel of industry experts discuss how the defence sector uses distributed manufacturing on the 3D Friday Talk Show. From left to right: Michael Pecota, Director of Digital Manufacturing at Perrygo Consulting Group, LLC, Michael Petch, Editor-in-chief at 3D Printing Industry, Calum Stewart CEng, Director at MILSPEC CONSULTANTS LTD and Alex Champion, Lead Application Engineer at E3D.



Alex (left) and Colonel Anders Brown (right) meeting the lead engineer at their Manufacturing Centre of Excellence, Rock Island, Illinois

3D printing trials and adoption strategies are a big part of Alex’s policy work. Some highlights:


A deployable digital manufacturing hub inside a shipping container

Deployable manufacturing. A small shipping container has been repurposed into a ‘deployable factory’ for field use. Inside, there are FDM 3D printers, CAD stations, 3D scanners, and filament recycling systems to make 3D printing filament during an emergency.

Together, these tools enable field operatives to design, manufacture, reverse engineer, and make repairs to field-damaged vehicles for non-safety critical ‘get me home’ repairs, so they can be limped back to base for more extensive repairs.


Current (1960s) British Army Ambulance

Out of manufacture parts. British Army Ambulances are used to help move injured and casualties during disaster relief such as hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, global pandemics, and fuel shortages.

These vehicles were manufactured in the 1960s and 70s and are still in field use today, but decades of use have seen internal components such as light fixtures degrade and fail. What if a disaster happens in the dark? Paramedics need a well-lit interior to tend to the wounded and save lives. As these ambulances have been out of production since the early 1990s, replacement parts are hard to come by.

A fast, effective, and cheap solution is a set of 3D printed fixtures to keep interior lighting firmly mounted. These can be modelled with basic CAD skills and 3D printed with robust materials such as Nylon in a short amount of time, avoiding any logistics hassles.

Distributed manufacturing hubs. Alex is assisting with the rollout of a hub of digital manufacturing machinery, including FDM 3D printers, SLS 3D printers, CNC machines, lathes, and milling machines. This hub is intended to work alongside an existing hub so designs can be shared digitally between hubs and parts can be made as needed. The goal is to help the army better understand prototype manufacturing, and for making low volume repair spare parts for equipment that’s no longer in manufacture.


Reducing the logistic burden

Supply chains are necessary, but for time-critical situations they can be a hinderance. Rapid response situations are more likely to be successful with on-demand, localised manufacturing that doesn’t depend on a singular production facility. 3D printing is an asset to those in search of new ways to improve efficiency, and the list of governments, military branches and civil protection agencies adopting it continues to grow at an exponential rate.


A call to action

Many useful 3D printing applications are still waiting to be discovered, and we’re here to help you discover them. A reliable 3D printing process starts with a high-quality extrusion system. By hiring the best and brightest engineering talent, we’re able to manufacture top-quality extrusion systems that maximise your print success rate.

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