Manufacturing in 3D: The disruptive force of additive manufacturing

Manufacturing in 3D: The disruptive force of additive manufacturing
Jul. 21, 2016 | by V. Georgieva

Today we continue our series of posts on the topic of Industry 4.0. If you haven’t read the previous posts in the series, you can do so here, here and here.

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:

  1. It will accelerate the innovation and production cycles. Prototypes can be created faster and cheaper with 3D printers, and the same 3D printer can produce different parts by just loading a different 3D design and feed material. For example, by 3D printing parts, Airbus would need to use 90% less energy, use 95% less raw materials, and would be able to consolidate components as well as avoid tooling, thus cutting the number of production steps required in half.
  2. Barriers of entry for many industries will diminish, because the same machine can be used to produce different parts.
  3. It will create new models of production and sales. Manufacturers may move production closer to customers, and become more responsive to their needs, by coordinating and outsourcing production to local 3D printing hubs. With 3D printers becoming widely spread among consumers too, some items may move from physical goods, into virtual ones, enabling the sale of 3D designs instead of actual items.
  4. Production quality and speed will improve. In the case of Airbus, 3D printing parts would allow them to use complex designs that were previously impossible to execute, such as a wing structures based on the lightweight natural design of a water lily from the Amazon River. In addition, the 3D printed airframe parts would be around 55% lighter than traditional parts, but stronger at the same time.
  5. Inventory requirements will lessen, since low-volume parts can be produced on demand. According to Mark Cotteleer , research director at Deloitte Services, “Manufacturers have tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of inventory sitting in warehouses. 3D printing will be used to work that down over the next 5 to 15 years.”

“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.

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