Securing raw material supply chains

Features - Materials

Challenges to affordable sourcing, predictable availability create the perfect environment to explore new options.

October 8, 2021

Composites’ strength allows converting from metal for this missile bracket.

The post-COVID-19 frenzy to return to normal has created a bevy of problems for manufacturers sourcing raw materials. Inflationary pressures and tariff uncertainty have challenged the ability to secure materials and have created more volatility in pricing and delivery times. These challenges to affordable sourcing and predictable availability create the perfect environment to explore new options for producing parts and components. If necessity’s the mother of invention, then there’s no better time to explore aerospace sourcing and manufacturing alternatives than after a pandemic that made us all realize the true meaning of necessity.

There may have been no greater example of how globally interconnected and vulnerable our supply chains are than when the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal earlier this year. In the United States, we watched spellbound as we realized an event halfway around the world could impact our ability to get what we needed. Speaking to The New York Times, Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization at Oxford University said: “As we become more interdependent, we are even more subject to the fragilities that arise, and they are always unpredictable. No one could predict a ship going aground in the middle of the canal, just like no one predicted where the pandemic would come from. Just like we can’t predict the next cyberattack or the next financial crisis, but we know it’s going to happen.”

Reimagine materials

I’ve seen firsthand the recent supply interruptions across industries – from aerospace and electronics to automobile manufacturing and recreational products. The uncertainty has driven many of our customers and prospects to consider domestically supplied options while concurrently posing questions that could improve manufacturability or allow conversion of the materials from which parts are made. Less expense, shorter production lead times, reduced waste, and more sophisticated part design are timely considerations that for many, make converting from metal to composites the right talk now.

Converting parts from metal to other materials creates weight savings that offer one of the greatest opportunities for aerospace to make dramatic cuts in carbon emissions. While some industries address the issues of carbon neutrality with more efficient manufacturing and clean energy, most aircraft emissions are generated through operation, such as burning jet fuel, which can be addressed by cutting weight.

Additionally, transitioning to more reliably sourced advanced materials presents an opportunity for designers to reimagine parts, identifying potential for part consolidation that can ultimately optimize the supply chain. For weight savings, customers will often look specifically at existing heavy parts. We recently evaluated converting a part that weighed 60 lb to 30 lb. Then, we were also able to identify additional smaller parts that could save incremental weight. For example, the client hadn’t considered a cable bracket that could save 0.5 lb per part used several times across platforms. Evaluating the parts with an understanding of what was now possible to engineer created a greater potential for collective weight savings that the client might not have considered.

Composite cable ties
All photos courtesy Alpine Advanced Materials

Increase flexibility

With raw materials, the question isn’t just if they’re available and affordable, but also how well you can work with them – what can they handle? Increasingly, the manufacturing partners we work with are using modern equipment, robotics, and software- driven solutions versus traditional manufacturing processes, and the companies embracing these new options are starting to set themselves ahead of legacy companies. Flexible manufacturing capability allows for shifting workers across suppliers to accommodate capacity changes. As we learned from the pandemic, workers have changed how they want to work, increasing the struggle for employees and directly impacting the supply chain. It’s increasingly important that manufacturers have some flexibility, allowing for fluidity in how to apply and keep their workforce.

Advanced material HX5 allows for lighter weight components such as this armrest.

Minimize risk

Many choose raw materials and legacy manufacturing processes in pursuit of lower part price. But hidden costs increase final part cost when materials are not sourced domestically, whether it’s transportation, potential for lost shipment, time, delays (traffic jam in the Suez Canal), or tariffs. Regulating trade imbalances, regardless of the administration, always creates volatility. Not having to guess the price of tariffs creates more certainty and means an American-made part might not come at a premium.

Working with domestic suppliers can also have significant advantages to maintaining the security of your designs and supply chains. The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) from the U.S. Department of Defense measures contractors’ cybersecurity capabilities, readiness, and sophistication. It helps ensure the supply chain is protected from threats through robust internal processes and allows mitigating the threat that could shut down production or steal data. This risk is further reduced when both partners are CMMC compliant.

HX5 used for this missile bulkhead has 90% the strength of aluminum and half the weight.

Stay ahead

Updating for the future isn’t as difficult as designers and manufacturers may imagine. With a little education and more engineering, there’s a way to design for the future while making your product and business more secure. Now is the time to secure yourself to lessen the impacts of future uncertainties, which last year may have been about keeping customers, but today is likely focused on keeping workers and supply chains intact. Take steps to modernize your manufacturing processes or products to give your customers what they want.

What’s easy now may not be so easy in the future, but that isn’t set in stone – or even aluminum.

Alpine Advanced Materials

About the author: Roger Raley is president of Alpine Advanced Materials. He can be reached at 469.490.1470.