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Additive Manufacturing: Can It Bring Manufacturing Home?

Posted By Paul Tate, December 02, 2011 at 6:41 AM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

Sometimes a new technology comes along, or reaches a critical stage of maturity, and then rapidly transforms an entire industry.

The jet engine. The mobile phone. The electric car. There’s a long list. Additive manufacturing – a production technique using 3D laser printing and advanced composite materials to “print out” physical products – could be poised to be the next real game-changer for the manufacturing industry over the next few years.

An increasing number of people seem to think so. And lots of research and development money and effort are going into exploring the technique and its wider industrial possibilities right now.

Manufacturing giants like GE, Airbus, GKN Engineering, and Rolls-Royce are some of the companies involved. Airbus is even talking about the day when it will be able to print out most of a plane. One U.K. university built the first printed drone earlier this year in just a week – from design to first flight.

So, how does it work? The idea behind additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is not new. It’s been used as a rapid prototyping technique in many manufacturing sectors for more than 20 years. But it’s getting increasingly sophisticated in its use of materials, more digitally powerful, and a lot more commercially viable.

Basically, additive manufacturing uses digital designs and precision 3D lasers to etch out and harden a precise product shape from a container of loose composite material – either a dust or gel, and metallic, ceramic, polymer, whatever you need. Then, out comes the finished product – accurate to within a few microns.

It’s a growing area of the business. Additive-industry consultant Terry Wohlers reckons that 20% of the output of 3D printers is already in the form of final products rather than prototypes, and this will rise to 50% by 2020.

Last year also saw a significant 40% increase in industrial shipments of additive manufacturing machines. Some 15,000 industrial systems a year are predicted to ship by 2015, with annual revenues of $5.2 billion by 2020. And this may be conservative.

What’s at stake for the manufacturing industry? Predictions are bullish.

Industrially, some say it could utterly transform many manufacturing business models and supply chains, making the whole process of production radically different – cheaper, simpler, and much more flexible.

Commercially, some say it could start a whole new consumer manufacturing revolution – taking the actual point of production directly to the point of customer need.

“Products will be made that will be specific to you,” (says Dave Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist). Additive manufacturing may enable the printing of life-size homes or even human organs, he predicts. "We will download things as easily as we download music.”

The idea here is that if you need something, you choose the product online, download the design over the Internet, then get a local 3D printing “production” center, or even your own home system, to print it for you in physical form.

Job done. Rapid delivery at the final point of consumer need.

No supply chain. No tooling. No waste. No storage cost. No distribution cost. No offshoring. No shipping from China or anywhere else. No plants to run. Lots of new manufacturing businesses being set up on main streets and industrial parks around the world .Digitally protected IP. And swiftly fulfilled customers.

Well, that’s the dream. Early examples of such "manufacturing as a service” start-ups already exist. But the reality of this happening nationally is still a long way off.

Nevertheless, the business model this production approach represents is radically different from current manufacturing models. And the cheaper and more sophisticated additive manufacturing systems become, the more likely they are to make a substantial industrial impact.

There are many issues, of course: What products would work best this way – auto parts, household products, personal products? It wouldn’t work for food and beverages, but it might work for the packaging. It may not work for a whole car, but it might work for a bicycle frame. Lots of unknowns.

Meanwhile, industrially there’s already been significant progress. GE is actively working on jet engine parts this way. Airbus is working on whole wings. Clean-tech companies are working on tidal and wind turbine blades. Auto companies are working on car body parts.

“We’re playing with different powders, composite materials, and stainless steel powders,” says Alan Foster, director of operations at McLaren’s new advanced sports car plant in the U.K. “This [idea] opens up the door to spare-part inventory management. So, in the future, maybe you don’t need racks and racks of spare parts. You just dial in and you get one made for you there and then.”

The big question for the manufacturing industry is whether this increasingly sophisticated production technique represents a new way of taking a global product idea and delivering it locally to individual customers in an entirely new way. Now that could really change the global manufacturing game.

Is this the beginning of a new manufacturing revolution?

Perhaps it’s also how manufacturing eventually comes “home.”

Paul Tate is Executive Editor of Manufacturing Executive.


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Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive



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Posted on
Looks like Rock Hill, South Carolina-based 3D Systems Corporation is turning out to be one of the hot players in the fast-growing additive manufacturing space.

The company has just been voted Leader in Digital Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping for the second year running by Design World magazine readers around the world.

Run by president and CEO Abe Reichental, with co-founder, executive vice president and chief technology officer Charles Hull, it already has Mercedes Benz, Eastman Kodak, Bose, Ford, Motorola, Xerox, Electrolux, Black and Decker and Porsche among its major customers.

And president Reichental is ambitious about 3D printing’s future: “Our technology is transformative. It’s about the future of competitiveness in the world. It’s about personal manufacturing. We want to democratize access to this technology for anybody – for kids, in the garage, and in the factory,” he says.

2012 could be another interesting year for 3D printing technology.
Posted on
Looks like Rock Hill, South Carolina-based 3D Systems Corporation is turning out to be one of the hot players in the fast-growing additive manufacturing space.

The company has just been voted Leader in Digital Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping for the second year running by Design World magazine readers around the world.

Run by president and CEO Abe Reichental, with co-founder, executive vice president and chief technology officer Charles Hull, it already has Mercedes Benz, Eastman Kodak, Bose, Ford, Motorola, Xerox, Electrolux, Black and Decker and Porsche among its major customers.

And president Reichental is ambitious about 3D printing’s future: “Our technology is transformative. It’s about the future of competitiveness in the world. It’s about personal manufacturing. We want to democratize access to this technology for anybody – for kids, in the garage, and in the factory,” he says.

2012 could be another interesting year for 3D printing technology.
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