A 3D-printer platform is sending out machines to hundreds of manufacturers in Michigan as part of an effort to create a network that can print out personal protective equipment on demand.

Why it matters: Networked 3D printers can serve as a rapidly scalable backup system for PPE — and showcase the potential of a new method of manufacturing.

What's happening: In October, Automation Alley — Michigan's advanced manufacturing hub — launched Project DIAMOnD, an effort to create the world's largest 3D printer network.

  • The project aims to strengthen supply chains for PPE by distributing advanced 3D printers that could manufacture protective equipment like face shields on demand.
  • This week, Markforged — creator of the world’s largest metal and carbon fiber additive manufacturing platform — announced it sent 3D printers to more than 200 small and medium-sized manufacturers in the Wolverine State as part of the project.

How it works: "I liken it to a kind of emergency alert system" for manufacturing PPE on demand, says Michael Papish, chief evangelist at Markforged.

  • The advanced 3D printers operate on a network, so blueprints for PPE can be instantly sent out to manufacturers if the Michigan government feels a need to bolster supplies.
  • When the printers aren't needed for PPE, manufacturers can use them as they desire to bolster their own businesses.

The big picture: The advantage of networked 3D printers is that a decentralized group of manufacturers can quickly be enlisted to produce equipment on the spot, without worrying about knotty supply chains.

The bottom line: Just as software fixes can be rapidly iterated and pushed out to networked devices, connected 3D printers promises to bring the same flexibility "to making physical things," says Papish.