Are you ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Image: 3dprint.com

First there was steam power. Then electricity. Then electronics and IT. Now the fourth industrial revolution has arrived: a mix of cloud computing, generative design and additive manufacturing. Are you ready to ride the wave for what’s arguably mankind’s greatest step forward? Jim Ward writes.

The above question was posed to more than 150 engineers and technicians at a workshop held in Perth in September by Autodesk, a global leader in the creation of software for architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, mining and the entertainment industry.

Richard Elving, Autodesk’s Manufacturing Sales Manager in Australia, said dominant technology trends – cloud computing, mobile technology, social connection, and collaboration – were driving businesses and consumers alike to explore profoundly different ways to design, make and use things.

Manufacturers have always been seeking ways to make things quicker, easier, cheaper, but now the new and growing expectation for products customised to the needs of individuals is posing a fundamental challenge to the current approach to product design and manufacture.

Dubbed “The future of making things”, the path ahead for the manufacturing sector world-wide is rich in opportunities but also littered with traps for the unwary. It’s a future that will involve three transformations – how things are designed and made, what customers care about and want and the nature of the products we make.

For the first time, large-scale manufacturers face a serious challenge from smaller – even start-up – companies that are quick on their feet, take the massive computing power offered by cloud-based technologies as a given, and focus on imagination and innovation, creating new products and distribution methods for the future instead of simply looking for ways to tweak the present.

Key to the development of products in the future is the “Internet of Things” – the cloud-based linking of products worldwide to make a reality of concepts like the smart city and the driverless car.

“We moved on from the age of documentation to the era of optimisation. Now we have to prepare ourselves for the era of connection,” said Richard Elving.

“It’s estimated that by 2020, 50 billion products will be interconnected.”

He cited the example of Tesla cars, which use interconnectivity to send updates to car owners, for example to increase power from the existing unit, or to solve problems that may arise.

Interconnectivity will facilitate the exchange of information between all the disciplines involved in the flow from concept, through design and engineering, to manufacture and distribution. This, said Autodesk, will replace the need to use multiple software programs that don’t talk to each other with a single product innovation platform that will extend from concept right through to customer feedback, to facilitate ongoing product improvement.

Autodesk is working towards the fulfilment of this need with Project Dreamcatcher, which it describes as the next generation of CAD. Dreamcatcher is a generative design system that enables designers to craft a definition of their design problem through goals and constraints. This information is used to synthesise alternative design solutions that meet the specified objectives. Designers can then explore trade-offs between many alternative approaches and select design solutions for manufacture.

This marks a massive step forward in the evolution of CAD. Although the acronym stands for “Computer Aided Design” it is essentially a passive system that would more accurately be termed “Computer Aided Documentation”.

The emerging generation of design tools enables designers to go beyond simply telling the computer what to do. By feeding in objectives and restraints they can tell it what they want to achieve. This makes the computer not simply a tool for execution, but an active player in the process of creativity – a process that will produce literally hundreds of solutions, many of which would lie outside the scope of human imagination.

When generative design is combined with new forms of manufacturing like 3D printing, which lends itself to smaller manufacturing spaces, total flexibility in product output and commercially feasible short production runs, it sets the scene for a complete restructure of the manufacturing sector.

This raises the other key question in the future of making things, which is the translation of generative design to the manufacturing process – “taking it from art to part”, in the lingo of the industry.

The most frequently touted solution is additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing.

Despite having many impressive runs on the board, AM is yet to win universal acceptance. Is it, as many still claim, just a fad?

No, say Autodesk. While Australia may be lagging behind industrial giants like the USA, China, Germany and Japan in the adoption of AM, its small and scattered population, coupled with the logistical problems associated with a preponderance of remotely located industries like mining and agriculture, makes it ideally suited to take up this flexible technology on a grand scale.

AM has clearly demonstrated its ability to go further than the economical manufacture of prototypes and short run products. Despite common perceptions, it is also well suited to long run mass production. In Germany, a company servicing the medical industry last year produced ten million items using AM. And, importantly, variations to the original item did not involve expensive retooling – simply an amendment to the computer program.

Matthew McKnight, Senior Technical Specialist, Manufacturing, for Autodesk in Australia, illustrated to the potency of the marriage between generative design and additive manufacturing by outlining a case study of a joint project between Autodesk, Airbus and New York design consultancy, The Living, to produce the world’s largest metal 3D printed aircraft component.

He explained that the specifications for the existing partition, currently in use in every Airbus in the world, were fed into the computer together with a number of weight and strength constraints.

From the myriad of solutions produced by the generative design program, one was selected that met – and exceeded – the criteria.  The organic design, although complex in detail, was totally capable of being produced by a 3D metal printer. The finished product met all the prescribed aviation strength and safety criteria, and weighed in at 45 per cent less than the production item currently in use in the Airbus fleet.

Airbus estimates the new partition, which will be in operational service by 2018, will create a saving of up to 465,000 metric tons of C02 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking about 96,000 passenger cars off the road for one year. And, of course, the application of generative design and additive manufacturing won’t stop there for the aircraft manufacturer.

Autodesk describe this as a perfect example of technology making the quantum leap from passive to generative.

McKnight said it had involved taking new approaches at every stage of the manufacturing process, from the software used to conceive and design the new partition, through the manufacturing hardware to the materials used in the end product.

“This is the way manufacturing is heading, and it’s what we should all be doing,” said McKnight.

“It’s not a question of if, but when these new technologies will be widely available.

“It’s a question of ‘be proactive, or be overtaken’,” he said.

One Western Australian company that has already emphatically opted for the proactive route is Perth-based Aurora Laboratories.

Established just two years ago, Aurora’s primary goal was to enable the mass adoption of 3D metal printing via new technologies that would significantly reduce the purchase price and make production faster and cheaper.

“Our first goal, which we recently achieved, was to build an industrial quality small format printer that could be marketed for around $50,000,” said Aurora’s managing director, David Budge.

Additive manufacturing costs are predicated on the weight, rather than the shape, of the item being produced – “the complexity comes free”, as Budge puts it. In practical terms, this means that producing a complex shape like a turbine would cost roughly the same as producing a simple square block of the same weight in the same material.

“Our next goal is to produce a high-speed, large format printer capable of producing a high-resolution one-tonne component in one day – which would take from three to six months using current technology,” said Budge.

“We’re currently building our first large format prototype, and we expect it to be commercially available within two years.

“It will have a massive impact on production costs and will seriously challenge the viability of traditional manufacturing methods, as well as the existing supply chain mentality,” he said.

Aurora’s vision for the large machine is that it will be able to produce a heavy and complex component, such as a 300kg pump or valve, for as little as $4,500, compared to a probable cost in the region of $AU 80,000 using conventional manufacturing methods.

This, said Budge, will impact on the way people approach issues like spares inventory, for example on mines in remote areas, where currently the high cost of maintaining a large spares inventory has to be weighed against the loss of production caused by a long wait for parts.

Aurora is confident that as soon as AM costs match conventional methodologies like milling and casting, there will be a strong and sustained swing to the new technology.

With this will come major industrial changes, by no means limited to increased productivity and reduced costs.

Factories dedicated to a single product line – a car plant, for example – will give way to multi-purpose production areas where AM machines can switch seamlessly from one product to another with a simple software change, and where modifications to individual products are just a matter of keystrokes.

The capacity to profitably produce in small quantities, and to tailor products to a client’s or consumer’s specific needs, will facilitate the localisation of businesses. This, in turn, will aid local development, at the same time greatly reducing the manufacturing sector’s transport footprint.

Elving summarised Autodesk’s view on future directions for industry by reiterating that when generative design is combined with new forms of manufacturing like 3D printing and applied to small-scale production facilities, it sets the scene for the development of a very different manufacturing landscape.

“The future of making things heralds an entirely new way of approaching the manufacturing process, from concept to production, and even the ongoing development and maintenance of the finished item. The potential benefits are, quite literally, staggering,” he said.

Elving said Autodesk was facilitating accessibility to its total software range by moving the provision of its products to a subscription system.

“Although this has only been in place for a matter of months, this has already led to an increase in uptake from both large and small companies. It replaces the upfront cost and maintenance fees with a regular subscription that includes updates. If the software is acquired for a specific project, the subscription can be cancelled when the job is complete,” said Elving.

Autodesk Australia

(02) 9844 8000

www.autodesk.com.au