Leveraging Distributed 3D Printing to Mitigate Red Sea Supply Chain Disruptions


Starting in October 2023, militants backed by Iran and based out of Yemen — referred to as the ‘Houthi movement’ because of their association with the Houthi tribe — began launching attacks against commercial maritime vessels in the Red Sea. In December 2023, multinational giants, mostly from the shipping and oil & gas sectors, began altering their maritime traffic from the Red Sea-Suez Canal route to a much lengthier route around the Horn of Africa.

Map of the Red Sea, image courtesy of Nations Online Project

From the 18th to the 21st Century

The Houthis’ activity is intended as support of Hamas in the latter group’s war with Israel. The Red Sea disruptions, meanwhile, are occurring at the same time as drought has led to similar rerouting decisions concerning the Panama Canal.

As the AP recently noted, these two developments are directly impacting on each other: “Some companies had planned to reroute to the Red Sea — a key route between Asia and Europe — to avoid delays at the Panama Canal… Now, that’s no longer an option for most.” A Bloomberg headline described the issue most strikingly: “Twin Crises Send Cargo Ships Back to 18th Century Trade Routes

As I noted in a recent 3DPrintPRO article, at the same time as these supply chain crises have emerged, the Biden administration has continued to accelerate its focus on supply chain management. The White House announced the establishment of a Council on Supply Chain Resilience at the end of November 2023, comprised of more or less all of the agency heads of cabinet-level departments.

Additionally, other associated announcements the White House made in Q4 of last year have also begun to materialize, including the release of two major policy documents in December 2023 and January 2024: the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Options for a National Plan for Smart Manufacturing and the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) first-ever National Defense Industrial Strategy (NDIS).

Trafficking routes may have temporarily been knocked back into the 1700s, but this crisis seems likely to ignite an exponentially increasing push to move supply chains fully into the 21st century.

Image courtesy of Fieldnode, provider of the Industry Collaboration Project digital inventory platform for the energy sector

Digitalization’s Moment Has Arrived

In November 2008, Rahm Emanuel — the current US Ambassador to Japan, former Mayor of Chicago, and one-time Chief of Staff to President Obama — bared his soul rather brazenly to the Wall Street Journal. Speaking about the 2008 financial crisis, Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you could not before.”

Despite the fact that it is Obama’s VP who now sits in the Oval Office, much has obviously changed since 2008. What once seemed like the height of political cynicism now seems, in retrospect, like a fairly straightforward description of the modus operandi of global policymakers. And, of course, even at the time, Emanuel was far from an originator of the concept.

The expectation for immediate crisis response has been integrated in the standard operating procedures of the global economy over decades. In terms of the Red Sea crisis, Western countries have shown quick action. Bearing witness to this was Operation Prosperity Guardian, announced by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in December 2023. This operation represented a coalition of approximately 20 countries, spearheaded by the US and UK, to tackle the Houthi activity in the Red Sea. An intriguing detail is that at least eight of these countries preferred to remain anonymous in their participation.

The conflict escalated rapidly in January 2024, with the Houthi’s launching numerous drone and missile attacks, culminating in a total of two dozen on January 10. In response, the Western coalition executed their first airstrikes on Yemen on January 12. The human cost is immeasurable, but there has undoubtedly been a remarkable impact on shipping rates. An article, dated January 12, on Sky News cited that shipping costs escalated by over 300% since November. This surge was a result of the disruptions caused to freight in the Red Sea from the attacks.

Amid these conflicts, reshoring started to gain traction in the US between 2022 and 2023, with other Western countries following suit, including their key partner in Operation Prosperity Guardian, the UK.

Although the gradual decline of the Western industrial base took quite a long time, reconstructing something similar will be at least as prolonged. However, in the wake of reconstruction, countries like the US and UK are embracing a future industrial base embedded in the process from its inception.

The restoration of manufacturing capacity where it has been drastically eroded ought to be undertaken in a new and innovative manner. This transformation should take into account the shifting concepts around what a traditional industrial base means. The emerging opportunity here is in creating fresh, digital supply chains focused around advanced manufacturing techniques, particularly additive manufacturing (AM).

The goal isn’t to replace existing chains – it is apparent that this is not currently feasible and may not be a possibility for several years. Instead, the objective is to develop supplemental supply chains which complement the existing ones as much as possible. A fitting motto from Ivaldi Group, a company based in San Francisco that provides supply chain digitalization services for heavy industries, encapsulates this idea aptly: “Send Files, Not Parts.”

The practical implementation of AM has often failed to live up to its idealized vision as I have previously noted. However, a growing number of companies, from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to service bureaus to software providers, appears to have identified the emerging importance of 3D printing in distributed manufacturing.

Indeed, as shipping costs start to impact everyone’s profits, the affordability of additive manufacturing (AM) will begin to look more appealing. The more quickly AM is adopted, the faster the industry can achieve economies of scale, reducing costs. Suddenly, digitalizing the supply chain seems like an all-in effort.

Conclusion: Opportunity and Unity are Intertwined

Every collective, business sector, governance body and so on, requires a central theme. Events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation in Ukraine have begun to propel supply chain resilience to the top of the agenda for AM. The recent shipping disruptions in the Red Sea are bolstering the position of digitalization for supply chain resilience as the central theme of the AM industry.

An effective central theme is such that, once established, it essentially generates a role for every participant. While the concept of “digitalizing the most disrupted supply chains by the Red Sea traffic issue” might seem wide-ranging and theoretical at first, when viewed in the context of AM implementation, it in fact becomes a very specific battle cry that could stimulate every capable organization to move in the right direction.

Especially for a task as big as building entirely new supply chains, there is ample room for everyone who is willing to act cooperatively, and no room at all for those acting from the mistrustful standpoint of competitive paranoia. The problems waiting to be solved are serious, but there is still reason for optimism: it’s apparently still not too late to try to change the world.

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