Industry 4.0 – 3D Printing in Manufacturing Industries
3D printing is one of the potential game changers that could completely disrupt the manufacturing value chain, allowing a shift from mass production to full customization, from centralized to distributed production. In the future 3D printing technologies will provide an alternative to “conventional” manufacturing technologies in many situations. It will deeply impact the way products are manufactured, delivered and maintained.
3D printing is one of the technologies nowadays subsumed under the label of Additive Manufacturing. It deposits material layer by material layer using a print head similar to that of an ink jet printer. The printer is usually the only production machine to manufacture a product. Therefore it very much differs from the traditional manufacturing techniques that mostly rely on the removal of materials by cutting or drilling (subtractive process) and where the production process might involve several machines. Base for 3D printing are 3D models of the product that are created within CAD systems. New opportunities for manufacturing are evolving since anything that is available in a digital form can be printed. These opportunities include home use i.e. the creation and production of individual products at home, professional production of customized products and the streamlining of existing manufacturing processes. For manufacturing industries this is opening up several opportunities:
- Onsite just in time manufacturing: Consumers creating their own products based on 3D models will come to 3D printing service providers or “outlets” that are able to print these products for them on demand. Therefore the factory is within the outlet executing the customer’s order in real-time.
- Bespoke mass customization: 3D printing enables the mass production of highly customized products at manufacturers’ shop floors at the cost of traditional mass production objects.
- “Outsourced” spare parts manufacturing: This can be viewed as a type of onsite manufacturing. It includes the printing of spare parts at the point of use e.g. in the maintenance hangar of an airline.
3D printing is a transformational technology that offers a potential to change the supply chain as we experience it today. It extends the current concept of product development and enables people not only to develop products, but also to manufacture them. The traditional 3D design tools have become tools for designing products to be printed. This has an impact on the design process by adding flexibility to the prototyping of products.
Even more striking is its ability to pass limits in product design, nobody would have believed possible a few years ago. It is possible to create new geometries and integrate parts into the overall product that with the use of subtractive technologies would have to be produced separately and mounted to the original product by using bolts or screws.
Furthermore additional raw materials are adopted to be used by 3D printing. The time where it was only possible to use polymers has passed. Today steel, aluminum and titan are being considered for the material development for 3D printing.
3D printing technologies can be used throughout the production cycle, from prototyping to full-blown production. Mass production of standard products is not a favorite application though. 3D printing is the production methodology of choice, when it comes to producing low volume, highly customized products, by offering high manufacturing flexibility, on demand capabilities and fast delivery. Its capability to manufacture a part as a whole also makes it more cost efficient than traditional manufacturing technologies apart from the fact that it can produce parts that could not be produced with the latter.
The flexibility of 3D printing will also open up opportunities to share production capacities between different companies, thereby better utilizing assets, but also supporting growth by accepting customer orders that otherwise could not have been taken due to capacity restrictions. Research projects such as Gemini 4.0 in Germany have been working on creating such business models.
3D printing will also change the distribution of products since they can be produced everywhere, where you have the base material and a printer available. This will be disruptive to the way we produce today. Theoretically a product manufacturer will not need any large production facilities anymore, since the product he designed can be “printed” in suitable locations worldwide. This will also keep the distribution costs low and will make distribution and production planning more predictable. We already see initiatives in the manufacturing of spare parts, where airlines want to reduce spare stocks and inventory cost by substituting costly spare parts to be stored by parts that are produced when needed. Projects like RePair involving airlines and plane manufacturers are already exploring these possibilities and thereby show the new business opportunities arising with 3D printing.