3D printing a catalyst for Industry 4.0

30th January 2020
Joe Bush

The variety of technologies compromising Industry 4.0 are now numerous, but it is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), advanced industrial robotics (AIR), and 3D printing that are the driving forces behind the fourth industrial revolution, which is reorganising manufacturing and supply chains. Quocirca’s Louella Fernandes explains.

While AI and robotics will principally serve to make industrial processes more efficient, 3D printing has the potential to fundamentally restructure industrial processes from the bottom up and underpin the transition from traditional to digital manufacturing.

Using 3D printing (referred to as additive manufacturing (AM)) is already generating new opportunities through the lowering of material and overhead costs, shortening the time to market through rapid prototyping, and increasingly for the production of final parts. The ability to make low to mid-volume runs of complex parts quickly and cost-effectively is an attractive proposition.

However, the role of 3D printing as a catalyst for Industry 4.0 is not without its challenges, including uncertainty around regulation, worker expertise, regulatory uncertainty and long-term costs for mass manufacturing.

After a chequered early life, technological breakthroughs have enabled the adoption of 3D printing to move beyond just prototyping and into industrial applications, including final assembles. Furthermore, the arrival of GE, as well as a growing number of traditional print OEMs including Ricoh, HP and Xerox, has increased competitive pressure. A collaborative ecosystem is evolving, such as HP’s strategic partnership with BASF for materials, SIEMENS for software solutions, and GKN for metal binder jetting development.

3D printing business benefits

Additive manufacturing can eliminate the need for expensive, labour intensive tooling for final parts, reduce overall lead time, streamline supply chains and support a more agile response to the market. Companies can also cut the costs of producing bespoke products, thanks to a reduction of tooling and waste (the latter by as much at 80%, thus bringing an environmental advantage too). 3D printing also allows new business models through disruption of traditional manufacturing and slashes warehousing and inventory costs. Decentralised production of spare parts of any batch size is a big gain for some businesses, for instance maritime and logistics.

Bridging the gap between traditional manufacturing and additive technologies, 3D printing of injection moulds may not have the durability of their steel counterparts, but they can be effective for low volume, limited productions runs, such as for bridge tools or prototyping. The ability to carry out prototyping in-house also has a sizeable impact in cutting R&D, tooling and capital costs, as well as reducing the time to market and faster feedback loops (‘fail fast rather than fail slow’).

Finally, 3D printing supports product innovation. It overcomes many of the design restrictions, such as the production of parts with geometries and complexities previously impossible to achieve. 3D printing also fits in well with the design megatrend of lightweighting - 3D printed metals can increase performance and resilience of parts that are both light and durable.

From prototyping to production

The barriers previously limiting final production in 3D printing have been lowered for two primary reasons. First, refinements in selective laser sintering (SLS), solid deposition modelling (SDM), and other additive technologies have increased manufacturing control, accuracy and predictability. Second, increases in the quality and properties of existing polymers and metals, and new possibilities in ceramics, nylon, carbon fibre, precious metals and other materials, have altered the landscape of opportunity in all kinds of markets.

For instance, a growing number of components for ventilation, heating, cable clamps and air conditioning ducts for jet engines and aircraft cabin interiors are being produced using polymeric printing. Other examples include shop-floor drilling guides and assembly jigs. Major aerospace firms have already added metal 3D components to their assembly lines. GE Additive produces additively manufactured fuel nozzles for LEAP, the popular commercial aviation engine. Compared to their predecessors, these 3D printed fuel nozzles reduce the risk of human error and weight by 25%.

In medical devices, 3D printing is enabling true personalisation of patient-specific surgical cutting guides, implants and prosthetics. It is also being used to make 3D facsimiles of CT and MRI scan data, which surgeons can use to plan complex procedures, reducing theatre time, plus associated cost and risk. Pioneers include Poland-based Glaze, a specialist manufacturer of prosthetic arms.

Glaze has global distributors connected to prosthetic clinics, who scan and provide amputee data, including exact dimensions, parameters and colour preferences. This information is then input into Glaze’s software system and printed to each individual’s exact specification. This shortens lead times, reduces costs and most important of all, provides patients with fully customised prosthetics that are up to ten times lighter than conventional products.

Factories of the future

The factories of the future are not, however, going to be merely filled with 3D printers of the type that already exist. They will be hybrid engines of Industry 4.0 that utilise every technology material and software advantage available. As the centrepiece of these digital factories, units based on 3D printed technology are being designed as fully interactive nodes in a network capable of self-healing, predictive maintenance, and responding to every facet of a digital factory environment.

For example, Siemens IIoT-enabled software for HP’s 5200 series allows for full print plant simulation, using real-time process data to model and optimise equipment, material flow, and personnel. This ‘digital twin’ of the whole process, from individual printer to entire factory, allows for targeted automation to decrease bottlenecks. In turn, this increases productivity and sustainability. The fusion of data intelligence, software, services, and materials innovation, will drive the advance towards manufacturing predictability, with high quality and optimal yield of parts at industrial levels of efficiency, accuracy and repeatability.

What needs to happen next?

The foundation for 3D printing’s future seems sound - the technologies are proving their value in the real-world, plus the growing ecosystem of innovators and contributors, including printer OEMS like HP, are fuelling its growth. There are, however, still some barriers that need to be overcome, notably a talent shortage. Currently, the pace of growth of the 3D printing industry is outstripping the supply of knowledgeable talent, and many organisations are expressing concerns over their ability to successfully implement 3D strategies, with much of their in-house expertise being geared to traditional manufacturing.

3D printing firms, OEMs, government and the entire ecosystem need to play an active role in contributing to the knowledge based. Also, the far-reaching impact of AM on the entire manufacturing process will require a more complete distribution of skills across the work cycle, from advanced CAD modelling through to process engineering, machine specific skills and machine management. Even when these issues are addressed, the future of 3D printing requires a change in thinking, working with the right people and the right approach.

Regulations are not yet a roadblock, but could potentially become one in the future, if history is any guideline, but of more imminent concern are materials costs and build speed. Metal powders, for example, are still expensive, and while 3D printing can reduce time to market, production speeds are currently too slow for some applications. These barriers are not insurmountable, however, and material science R&D, and continued collaboration in the industry will maintain pressure on material costs, particularly for polymeric printing. As 3D printing equipment evolves, for example, increased printer bed sizes, crucial time will be shaved off average build time.

Though it is hard to make precise predictions at this early stage, all indications are that the future of 3D printing lies in mass manufacturing. Certainly, it looks increasingly likely that additive manufacturing will be a key element of smart factories of the future.

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