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FEATURE: ‘Digital factory’ offers manufacturers new opportunities

Herbert Koeck, executive vice-president, 3D Systems

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Since ‘Industry 4.0’ became part of our vernacular at the start of the decade, many manufacturers have found themselves at a crossroads: one route continuing tried and trusted traditional factory processes, and the second route offering the challenge of fully embracing the ‘digital factory’.

For many manufacturers, staying with their traditional processes might have appeared to be the best path. After all, the processes have been fine-tuned over a hundred or more years to achieve repeatability, part durability, efficient workflows and low operational costs.

While there is an advantage to maintaining this continuity, traditional processes are also challenged by high labour costs, errors leading to less than desired time-to-market, significant up-front production costs in the form of tooling and assembly costs.

With many manufacturers facing new marketplace demands for increased speed and agility, additive manufacturing (AM) gives an opportunity to transform manufacturing workflows, reduce supply chain issues and deliver a new competitive advantage.

The technique can move manufacturers away from reliance on tooling and the costs involved, reduce assembly issues and delays through part count reduction and deliver cost-effective production at low volumes. AM works with other Industry 4.0 tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality, monitoring, robotics, product lifecycle management, enterprise resource planning and other established technologies enabling more streamlined production. And most importantly, industrial 3D printing can integrate seamlessly with the rest of the shop floor tools for greater flexibility and a more nimble production environment.

AM can directly address specific application challenges, but it takes some rethinking of parts. Rather than simply using a solid metal bracket or hinge, can the geometry be refined to deliver a new version that is lighter, faster to produce, and as – if not more – effective? When 3D Systems’ applications engineers work one-on-one with our customers, they start by understanding the part and what function it is supposed to deliver. They ask “What is the perfect geometry to maximize the efficiency of this part? What configuration yields maximum performance?” And then “What material will deliver the properties required to achieve the goal?”

Since the advent of Industry 4.0, many have predicted that the impact of AM in production manufacturing workflows will be significant. Innovations in 3D printing solutions including hardware, software and material advancements have enabled greater precision, repeatability, and productivity to the point of the accepted six sigma repeatability required by the manufacturing industry. New materials that yield a broader set of properties have resulted in the ability to use the technology to address an increasing range of applications in the product development and production value chain. Industrial AM systems are now capable of facilitating digital manufacturing optimisation and complete production runs of thousands or hundreds of thousands of parts — with the last part equal in quality to the first, without the need for costly and lengthy tooling changes.

By its very nature, AM might be regarded as disruptive – causing a notable positive impact on both supply chain and manufacturing processes. But we see it as a natural progression from purely traditional production processes with additional additive tools in the toolbox. For some it could mean lowering labour costs and improving safety, while for others it could be the ability to create parts that were previously not possible due to design and production constraints.

Potential benefits include significantly improved and reduced part production times, more low-volume production needs, reduced assembly processes, reduced supply chain efforts, reduced stock keeping units and more single-source part maintenance, balanced by improved part performance and potentially better rates of mean time between failure. 

Technology has disrupted many facets of today’s society and manufacturing is no exception. Now is the time for manufacturers to make their mark in the era of Industry 4.0. Companies that have already embraced a digital manufacturing workflow are discovering new applications and cutting time-to-market. The tools are available to make cheaper products, faster. Through the power of the digital factory, manufacturers can create new business models, new products and new opportunities.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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