There is another, oft ignored, technology that falls under the umbrella of Industry 4.0, by crossing the digital-physical border in the most immediate and radical way – 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). Initially seen as just a curious way to print cute figurines of yourself at home, today 3D printing has demonstrated its potential to be so much more. Already in 2011, the Economist expounded: “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.... it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”
Well, today we have a clearer picture of how 3D printing is transforming the manufacturing process. Rapid prototyping was the first use the industry found for additive manufacturing, reducing the lead time and cost of developing prototypes of new parts and devices. But it hasn’t stopped there. Today, Nike 3d-printed cleats for the 2014 Superbowl; Hasbro plans on creating a new range of “print yourself” toys for kids. General Electric uses 3D printing to print parts for their turbines and fuel nozzles . Boeing 3D-prints parts for planes , such as the 787 Dreamliner, which boasts 30 printed parts in it. Airbus is also gearing up to use 3D printed parts in their airplanes.
And before you are tempted to think it would just have niche application, it is not. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2018 nearly 50% of manufacturers in the consumer products, heavy goods, and life sciences industries will be using 3D printing to produce parts for items they consume, sell, or service. Forecasts for the 3D printing industry are equally bold. According to Wohlers Report 2014, the worldwide 3D printing industry is now expected to grow from $3.07B in revenue in 2013 to $12.8B by 2018, and exceed $21B in worldwide revenue by 2020. Wohlers Report 2013 had forecast the industry would grow to become a $10.8B industry by 2021. Its projected future value has doubled in just a year.
The transformative influence of 3D printing on the industry is profound. A recent article by SAP outlined 6 main benefits to 3D printing in manufacturing:
“Additive manufacturing technology could very well have a larger impact on manufacturing than any other technology,” writes industry analyst and consultant Terry Wohlers in Wohlers Report 2014.
Whether through evolution or revolution, Industry 4.0 is set to transform manufacturing from all sides. While some technologies, such as intelligent analytics, are enabling smart production and maintenance, others, such as 3D printing, are set to destroy old models, and create new ones. Such times of change at exciting, and full of possibilities, but we also need to be aware of the challenges the industry will face. That will be the topic of our next article.