Supply chain resilience: Think of the U.S. as a ship at sea

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
5 min readDec 14, 2023
Vector image of a U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, of the same class as the Essex, on which the Navy put a 3D printer expected to be used to additively manufacture commonly needed components.

“Ship of state” is an apt metaphor for the push to make U.S. supply chains more resilient. If you think of a ship at sea, away from port and supplies for long periods of time, having the supply chain resilience to deal with shortages by making what it needs from available manufacturing capabilities and resources on board the vessel is critical.

The U.S. experienced what it feels like to be a ship at sea during the coronavirus pandemic. Revolving shortages of pretty much everything under the sun vexed businesses and consumers alike. Whether it was vital semiconductors, parts for a home furnace, or the most basic essentials such as toilet paper, the U.S. came up short when this sudden and unexpected shock laid bare our lack of supply chain resilience.

A ship at sea mitigates these disruptions. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard has invested in additive manufacturing maker capabilities onboard ships so sailors can make up for shortfalls ranging from broken coffeepot handles to sensor mounts for unmanned maritime systems, as they did on the Coast Guard cutter James. The U.S. Navy put a 3D printer on the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex; after testing and prove out, the machine is expected to use an aluminum alloy raw material to additively manufacture commonly needed components like fuel adapters, bleed air valves, and valve covers, according to Military Times. Imagine the value of that to a submarine on extended deployment in the North Atlantic, or an icebreaker in Arctic waters.

Of course, the U.S. is hardly a ship at sea in the literal sense. Supply chain resilience is not only enabled by novel technologies like 3D printing, but also by more robust domestic production operations know-how, especially when coupled with reshoring, manufacturing flexibility, and surge capacity. We must also take advantage of strategies like nearshoring across the Americas and friendshoring with like-minded allies around the world that share our political values and concerns.

Digital manufacturing is indispensable to supply chain resilience. Digital data makes product models and manufacturing instructions easily transportable. This portability is key: as one supply chain node becomes unavailable or simply has insufficient capacity, we should be able to send product definition and production data to another location for fulfillment.

This national connectivity must be comprehensive, encompassing an ecosystem of small, midsize, and large enterprises in a countrywide web of manufacturing operations excellence. Digital manufacturing means not only that these facilities can be linked in multiple combinations and permutations of a value chain, but also that they themselves have the adaptability, born of digital control processes, to flexibly implement change orders to meet differing production demands around product configuration, quantities produced and delivery timetables. And if, after careful digital analysis of the value chain, we find it is impossible to produce the exact product configuration we desire, we quickly digitally create a new product that has most of the desired features, just as we must make do with what’s available on a ship. Having digital design and engineering seamlessly linked to digital manufacturing allows us to produce the product most closely to the desired one.

Digitalization supporting supply chain resilience extends to analytics and AI, which allow us to quickly crunch mountains of historical and current data, run what-if simulations through stochastic (probabilistic) engines, and spit out various potential outcomes and courses of action. Each outcome is assigned a value that corresponds to its predicted likelihood and probability, to guide decision making. During and after execution, we can monitor the actions we execute to quickly retune as needed if we are not achieving the desired results.

That highlights another must-have for supply chain resilience: excellence across manufacturing operations. We must be nimble to be resilient, and smoothly-running, optimized manufacturing operations are a prerequisite for nimbleness. When we have that level of mastery over our manufacturing processes, we can shape them to quickly address exigencies at hand.

Ajay Malshe (left) and Stephan Biller, co-chairs of the eXcellence in Manufacturing and Operations Purdue Engineering Initiative (XMO PEI), welcome attendees to the inaugural national summit on advanced manufacturing and operations, which produced a call to action for resilient U.S. supply chains. (Photo provided)
XMO PEI Co-Chair Stephan Biller (right) leads a summit panel discussion with industry leaders on building resiliency in U.S. manufacturing and operations. (Photo provided)

In soccer, they talk about the ability to shape your body to the ball, to adjust to whatever way it comes at you in order to control it, pass it, or shoot it. Manufacturing is the same: when we have that deep knowledge and command over our production operations, it sustains an inherent flexibility to adapt to each occurrence of the unknown and unexpected.

This level of supply chain resilience is a vision of the U.S. as a digital industrial dynamo, a “ship of state” able to not only produce daily to satisfy business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) needs, but also to quickly ratchet up the wherewithal to meet sudden demand surges or overcome supply constraints when crises inevitably rear their heads.

Stephan Biller is the Harold T. Amrine Distinguished Professor in the School of Industrial Engineering and the Michell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business at Purdue University. He is a co-founder and co-chair of Purdue’s national eXcellence in Manufacturing and Operations initiative and leads Purdue’s Dauch Center for the Management of Manufacturing Enterprises. Previously, he served as Founder and CEO of Advanced Manufacturing International, Vice President of Product Management for AI Applications & Watson IoT at IBM, Chief Manufacturing Scientist & Manufacturing Technology Director at General Electric, and Tech Fellow & Global Group Manager for Manufacturing Systems at General Motors. He is an IEEE Fellow and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering.