Manufacturing 2.0: The additive era

Since the industrial revolution manufacturing has meant cumbersome factories, production lines, machinery, labour and striving for the creation of economies of scale.

For a manufacturer to scale up, down or change a product line it has required a fair amount of effort, time and money.

But now revolution is in the air, driven by the development of 3D printing technology which is set to change manufacturing as we know it.

Downloading a product’s data specifications and manufacturing it without even getting up to make a cup of tea is now a reality.

Additive manufacturing has arrived in a very big way and it is going to transform tradition manufacturing notions one thin layer at a time.

Labelled an ‘emerging technology’, 3D printing has actually been around for more than 30 years.

But with heightened accuracy, increased efficiency, affordability and growing demand 3D printing is now entering into the consumer market.

Additive printing is breaking through the traditional barriers of large scale manufacturing and has been tipped to disrupt the industry’s current norms.

Forget the woes cheap offshore labour and mass production has inflicted on Australian manufacturers, the evolution of 3D printing is set to be even more disruptive.

The process of 3D printing uses CAD data to simplify product specifications into 2D slices and in an additive process builds a product from the ground up, layer by layer.

3D printing breathes life into incredibly intricate and detailed designs in a matter of hours.

It can produce parts within parts; create micro products and medical grade, life giving devices and can do all of this with very little economies of scale, meaning bespoke and personalised products can be fashioned relatively cheaply.

The technology will result in a manufacturing renaissance, intellectual property litigator at US law firm Finnegan John Hornick proudly told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“You can make anything and everything will change,” he said.

But for manufacturers to take advantage of the advancements, swift and purposeful change is required from traditional companies.

Hornick warns that if segments of the manufacturing industry don’t adapt quickly they will go down in much the same way the music industry did when sites like Napster and Limewire were launched and music downloading went mainstream.

As additive printing advances, it will disrupt traditional manufacturing and will initially result in job losses, however entirely new industries will grow up around it.

“3D printing will cause business to either change, adapt, or vanish,” he said.

Just like the ‘App revolution’, companies that may not have previously had a reason to exist will now open their doors, Hornick explained.

Traditional manufacturers also have an opportunity to diversify and instead of relying on a primary product they will be able to best position themselves to meet market demands as they develop.

Hornick predicts that as 3D printing technology becomes cheaper and more refined the process will to become increasingly common and will enter the home.

Already you can buy a 3D printer for your home for under $500. The revolution is here and Hornick recommends not “fighting it, but embracing it”.

Additive manufacturing also brings with it wealth of opportunity for high labour countries like Australia to benefit.

In some cases 3D printing products can abolish the need for extensive manual labour and it has the power to bring manufacturing operations back on shore.

“3D printing will take away the advantage of off shoring manufacturing and will stimulate a manufacturing renaissance,” he said.

Hornick explains that high employee numbers will not be required and fewer types of machines will be needed on production lines.

 “Fewer people will be needed; companies won’t be forced to make products in China or overseas,” Hornick explained.

3D printing will flip manufacturing as we know it, and traditional manufacturing processes and models will need change with it.

“3D printing will disrupt traditional manufacturing, you will sell designs not products,” he said.

Companies like Ford who have come under fire for off shoring operations in favour of cheaper labour markets have already jumped on board because 3D printing allows for rapid and refined prototyping.

The flexibility 3D printing affords manufacturers is another distinct benefit, it eliminates the constraints of large runs and is a step up from mass injection moulding processes.

Boeing is another early adopter who has realised the potential of additive manufacturing.

The company is printing aircraft ducting as one piece instead of dealing with 20 which has not only reduced inventory but also decreased overall aircraft weight which saves fuel and enhances the sustainability score of an aircraft.

3D printing enables the production of lighter parts and components and it uses fewer inputs, delivering heightened performance efficiency.

Car maker BMW has 3D printed tools which weigh less, a move that has reduced workers’ fatigue levels on the manufacturing line.

But when it comes to healthcare and pharmaceuticals 3D printing, according to Hornick, will have the biggest impact.

It enables economic creation of high quality bespoke implants for patients or customised prosthetics for the disabled.

Great advancements have also been achieved through 3D printing cells to form organs.

Glasgow University is currently working towards 3D printing medicines which will transform pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Already medical grade titanium plates are being printed and in the future Hornick suggests that if you need a hearing aid it will be as easy as downloading the parameters for it and printing it at home.

“The technology is there, use it to benefit,” Hornick said.

“Any company that can afford to make something with 3D printing should.”

Manufacturers' Monthly attended the Resourcing the Future conference as a guest of commercialisation of innovation association LESANZ.