FACTORIES, THE CHIEF innovation of the industrial revolution, are cathedrals of productivity, built to shelter specialized processes and enforce the division of labor.
Adam Smith, who illuminated their function on the first page of The Wealth of Nations, offered the celebrated example of a pin factory: “I have a seen a small manufactory… where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. [They] could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins a day… Separately and independently… they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin a day.”
But the benefits of factories suggest their limitations. They are not reprogrammable: To make different products, a factory must retool with different machines. Thus, the first product shipped is much more expensive than the next million, and innovation is hobbled by the need for capital expenditure and is never rapid. More, specialization compels multinational businesses to circle the globe with supply chains and warehouses, because goods must be shipped and stored.
In the midst of a severe earthquake that registered 7.8 on the Richter magnitude scale, Nepal was shaken, villages were levelled, avalanches triggered, and millions affected. Nearly 9,000 died, around 22,000 were injured, and 3,000,000 – a tenth of the country’s population – were made homeless. The country sandwiched between India and China was brought to its knees.
As aid and rescue teams from countries near and far descended on Nepal, ‘tent cities’ were erected, and within them, similarly constructed hospitals cared for the injured. These make-shift emergency centres are critical in crises such as this, saving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives at each catastrophic event. But they rely, as so many services do, on a consistent electricity supply, something an earthquake-ravaged setting, for example, can hardly guarantee. In one particular clinic in Nepal in 2015, there was an outage. Suddenly the chances of survival for each patient was cut dramatically.
One of the many advantages of additive manufacturing is its ability to produce a diverse range of components. With this in mind, Pete Basiliere, Research Vice President of Additive Manufacturing at the U.S. research and advisory firm Gartnerdelved into the potential for a business contingency plan based on 3D printing and its digital capabilities.
Natural disasters and manufacturing operations
3D printing technology for disaster relief is already an active area of research. For example, the 3D printed delivery drones created for humanitarian aid, yet, according to Basiliere, little is done for the recovery of an organization’s manufacturing operations when the elements are against them.
As a somewhat nerdy by-product of working in an industry that looks at manufacturing the world differently, I too find myself often viewing the world through an additive lens. Perhaps the place I do this most is when traveling on an airplane where I tend to scour the cabin for places where additive manufacturing (AM) could be present someday soon.
The lifespan of an aircraft, typically between 20 and 30 years, makes maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and retrofit, both big and necessary businesses. Think of every plane you’ve been on in the last few years that still featured a now-defunct charging socket from the 1980s – aircraft are not changing overnight to keep up-to-date with consumer expectations. However, Airbus’ Global Market Forecast projects that over the next 20 years the commercial aircraft upgrades services market will be worth 180 billion USD.
Over the last 5 years, 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has had a tremendous influence in our industry. It is considered the current and future of almost any conceivable form of fabrication. Though this technology has been embraced by enthusiasts from small-time makers to international aerospace ventures, questions about its cost effectiveness are paramount to widespread adoption. Here’s why.
Costs of production for additive manufacturing fall into two categories: “well-structured” costs, such as labor, material, and machine costs, and “ill-structured” costs, which can include machine setup, inventory, and build failure. Right now, most cost studies focus on well-structured costs, which comprise a significant portion of 3-D printing production and are cited by detractors as evidence of cost ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, these studies focus on the production of single parts and tend to overlook supply chain effects, thus failing to account for the significant cost benefits which are often concealed within inventory and supply chain considerations.
What happens when two financial juggernauts in the same industry combine? It seems we are about to find out. Just a few weeks ago, it was confirmed that Wabtec Corporation is entering a definitive agreement to merge with GE Transportation, a branch of General Electric Company. This major transaction will not only boost Wabtec into a Fortune 500, global transportation leader in rail equipment, software, and services, but it will significantly influence the direction of 3D printing with regard to the railway industry as well.
3D printing has cemented itself as a core component in the evolution of railway manufacturing and equipment over the last several years, with several agencies and companies investing research and development resources into exploring further applications for the technology. The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has integrated 3D printing technology as a cost-effective method of creating and developing parts for the train system, including the ticket gates, ticket vending machines, and even the railways themselves as well as other assets across the metro network. In 2013, rail freight operator Union Pacific (UP) began experimenting with 3D printing to create handheld automatic equipment identification (AEI) devices to ensure that rolling stock is properly tracked and assembled. UP has also implemented 3D printing processes to greatly accelerate their production cycles, with parts now able to be 3D printed within mere hours.
Efficient serial production – true additive manufacturing – is the real game changer. Four case studies demonstrate how scaling up to serial 3D printing production represents a huge opportunity for manufacturers.
Yorkshire-based Labman Automation creates custom laboratory automation and robotics equipment; this fast-growing small business has been working with Materialise for three years to produce bespoke parts for its machines.
“Our job is to be creative and the design freedom of 3D printing gives us free rein to come up with interesting and novel solutions for our customers,” says Rob Hodgson, Inventor at Labman Automation.
A startup working to build 3D-printed concrete towers for land-based wind turbines now wants to do the same for offshore projects.
The towers and foundations for offshore wind turbines currently being deployed at sea, and the even larger machines under development, are so massive that shipping the components via road or rail is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
To address the issue, a startup founded by a former National Renewable Energy Laboratory engineer aims to use concrete additive manufacturing, also known as 3D concrete printing, to build turbine towers and foundations at or near ports for less money and in less time than with conventional methods.
In an article for Coindesk, Michael J. Casey, the chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board who is also a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative, wrote about the implications of blockchain technology for the supply chain. While several logistics companies are raving about how their industry will be disrupted for good, Casey points out another emerging technology that, if used in conjunction with blockchain technology, can restructure the industry even further:
“…the biggest change for global trade is yet to come,” he wrote. “That will be when the Internet of Things, 3D printing and other automating technologies finally free manufacturing from the constraints of geography. At that moment, blockchain technology could come into its own, enabling an entirely new paradigm of decentralized, on-demand production and forcing a realignment of global economic power.”
Good opinion piece from Rob Enderle
Last week, I was in Spain with HP and much of the conversation was on how 3D printers were going to disrupt and revolutionize manufacturing. However, underneath all of the discussions was a growing concept that the factory itself, as these 3D printers advance and become more capable, would evolve into a huge and vastly more capable 3D printer. Except, rather than printing parts, these huge printers would print things like fully capable automobiles. Granted, we are likely a couple of decades out but talk about disruptive technology revolutions this could be a massive game changer because it anticipates a time when, rather than regional warehouses, Amazon might have regional mega printers.
Let’s talk about that this week.
Evolution of 3D Printers
Until recently, 3D printers were more of a science experiment than an actual tool. The parts, while physically representative, weren’t very robust or, if they were robust, they cost more than most other manufacturing methods. HP’s Jet Fusion printers changed that by producing parts that were about 1/10th the cost of aluminum, had similar strength, but came in around 1/10th the weight as well. Suddenly, we had 3D printers that could produce parts that were arguably better than traditionally produced parts and, rather than being more expensive, they were significantly less expensive.