Where does 3D printing lie within Industry 4.0?

As 3D printing continues to make inroads from product design right through to the manufacturing floor, Dr Phil Reeves offers an insight into where the technology is making the biggest impact in the next industrial revolution.

Dr Phil Reeves, VP Strategic Consulting, Stratasys.
Dr Phil Reeves, VP Strategic Consulting, Stratasys.

3D printing – or additive manufacturing – has evolved to a manufacturing process that continues to allow a plethora of companies in an increasing array of sectors to enjoy new manufacturing efficiencies; including on-demand production benefits and significant time-to-market reductions.

As recent analyst reports suggest, additive manufacturing is now established as a highly-regarded technology, with McKinsey & Company stating that the industry could be worth around US$100-$200bn.

Maximising the 3D printing opportunity

There are two ways we can initiate this US$200bn market space. The first is something we are already doing – we find products and business models that exploit the benefits of 3D printing.

Strakka Racing, is a good example. This British motor-racing team uses Stratasys FDM 3D printing solutions throughout the design and manufacturing process – from prototyping to production tools, as well as for final 3D printed race-ready parts on its race car.

Strakka Racining's race-ready cockpit dashboard panel, 3D printed in thermoplastic material using Stratasys' FDM 3D Printing Tech.
Strakka Racining’s race-ready cockpit dashboard panel, 3D printed in thermoplastic material using Stratasys’ FDM 3D Printing Tech.

The inverse of that is to make the technology fit-for-purpose for the future to suit the manufacturers’ needs. This is where I believe we are currently – taking rapid prototyping and turning it into additive manufacturing. That’s the difference; making technologies that are fit-for-purpose for production.

So why the interest in 3D printing now, when it was actually invented 30 years ago? The answer is socio-economics, some of which cross over with 3D printing. These include an aging and growing population, wealth disparity, and issues around old and new diseases. Society is changing and these factors are driving consumers to think differently about things that we’re giving them.

The environment is also changing the way that consumers and manufacturers think, which in turn, drives the demand to consider technologies such as 3D printing for resource efficiency. Working in tandem with this are global economics; despite the enormous opportunities to sell products, companies can’t realistically work in all these different markets from one centralised factory. Known as global mega-trends, they are forcing companies to think differently, to reconsider and reinvent the factory.

The next industrial revolution and additive manufacturing

Data is driving industry 4.0 - image courtesy of Stratasys

We are at the brink of Industry 4.0, which is truly the next industrial revolution and one in which additive manufacturing will play a crucial role.

We live in a world where we can connect things together, and Industry 4.0 harnesses this. As an example, I can connect my son and his iPod through the products he purchases through the Internet to companies that haven’t – to date – produced the goods that he wants.

As the ‘designer’, he pushes the PLM system to make the product and, via a credit card, he initiates a transaction that drives the factory (which is integrated with the logistics) to ensure he receives the product.

TM Smart Factory Expo

Nov 2-3, The NEC (Birmingham)

The Manufacturer Smart Factory Expo is the UK’s only dedicated exhibition in response to Industry 4.0

Showcasing the best solution providers and technology offerings, this unique event is for manufacturing business leaders keen to adopt the relevant tools and knowledge to drive business growth.

  •  Discover new, more cost-effective solutions to existing processes
  •  Hear how other manufacturers are dealing with the fourth industrial revolution
  •  Network with new suppliers, customers and business partners
  •  Watch live demonstrations of the latest products & how they integrate with each other
  • Uncover new ideas and insights to grow your business

This is Industry 4.0; it isn’t a factory that is mechanised, it’s the entire supply chain and it’s ran by the Internet of Things (IoT). 3D printing plugs in effortlessly in the middle of this concept because it’s infinitely flexible – it’s a technology with the capabilities to produce products whose shapes are still unknown to us.

What does this mean for consumer 3D printing?

Right now, there’s a different economy emerging between consumers and manufacturers. Some consumers buy absolutely everything and some companies make everything to stock and sell. Conversely, there are those consumers who want to make everything.

We are currently at the point in the middle; companies that only make things demanded by consumers and consumers who want to personalise the things that manufacturers make. This is the space for change – the industrial revolution – and it’s an exciting time as digitisation continues to help bring this to reality in an array of different supply chains.

What is a strategy for additive manufacturing?

Companies need to evaluate their need to use additive manufacturing and there are several reasons to use the technology, including economic low-volume production; militating tooling; complexity; cost-effective personalisation; environmental sustainability, and supply chain optimisation. Most business models that currently employ additive manufacturing exhibit at least one or more of these business drivers.

Additive manufacturing continues to disrupt traditional supply chains and established business models. It provides new responses to socio-economic changes and it will play an important role in the future of Industry 4.0, as it enables tangible manufacturing to be coupled to the digital world. We’re living in a more connected world and one where additive manufacturing solely requires digital data to drive it.

To maximise the benefits of 3D printing, companies need to understand where to apply the technology along both the supply and value chain. Having an additive manufacturing strategy is no longer just nice to have, it’s a necessity.