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Additive Manufacturing at the Heart of a New Industrial Revolution

July 23, 2012


“The world of manufacturing is being shaped by a new industrial revolution,” writes Peter Marsh, Caroline Nevitt, Katie Carnie and Martin Stabe, “the seventh in a series of key epochs for this sector in the past 2,000 years and the most important since the original industrial revolution that started in northern England around 1780.” [“The seven ages of industry,” Financial Times, 10 June 2012] The seven industrial epochs are explored in an interactive graphic that describes “key innovations, products and people that have shaped and are shaping each of the seven industrial epochs, and looks at the share of world manufacturing output in selected countries during each age.” The seven industrial epochs identified are: 1) Pre-industry (1-1500AD); 2) Standardized products (1500-1780); 3) The factory system (1780-1830); 4) Transportation age (1830-1870); 5) Age of science (1870-1955); 6) Computer power (1955-2005); and 7) The new industrial revolution (2005-present).


In a previous post, I discussed an article from The Economist that also insists we are at the beginning of a new industrial revolution. [“The third industrial revolution,” 21 April 2012] The article notes that “the first industrial revolution began in Britain in the late 18th century, with the mechanization of the textile industry. … The second industrial revolution came in the early 20th century, when Henry Ford mastered the moving assembly line and ushered in the age of mass production.” The result of these two revolutions, the article claims, was that people became richer and more urban. The so-called third industrial revolution it asserts will be the result of “manufacturing … going digital.” It will be a revolution because it “could change not just business, but much else besides.” Although the staff at The Economist and the writers from the Financial Times don’t agree on the specifics of how historical timeframes should be labeled, they certainly agree that we are entering a new industrial age. Marsh and his colleagues write:

“This new period, which started in 2005, features the disciplines of ‘networked manufacturing’, connecting up design with physical production even when these activities are many miles apart, global ‘niche’ production, where companies make narrow ranges of products but sell them globally, and the rapid transfer of ‘production intelligence’ in the shape of designs, intellectual property and technology.”

At the heart of this new industrial revolution is “3D printing, or high-tech ‘additive’ manufacturing.” [“Democracy made with personalised products,” by Peter Marsh, Financial Times, 14 June 2012] Marsh describes a manufacturing plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose factory floor holds “100 or so machines, which require just a handful of human attendants, contains an internal chamber in which layers of powder are being fused using lasers to create complicated parts that end up in anything from boat seats to optical instruments. The machines are controlled by computer codes defining the shapes of the items to be made that can be sent by the internet.” The growing consensus is that additive manufacturing will indeed revolutionize how things are made and distributed. Marsh continues:

“Probably the biggest cheerleader for the sector is Abe Reichental, a 55-year-old Israeli-American who is chief executive of 3D Systems, another US company which with Stratasys [the Minneapolis company] is one of the world’s two biggest producers of 3D printing machines. He says the technology can contribute to the ‘democratisation of manufacturing’ by lowering the barriers between design and production. ‘3D printing can provide the garage entrepreneur with the same productive capabilities as the large corporation,’ says Mr Reichental. Another key attribute is that the technology makes it possible to produce ‘one-off’ or highly personalised parts more easily than with other manufacturing methods. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, the US industrial group, is similarly enthusiastic. ‘I think it’s going to be big, I really do,’ Mr Immelt says. The technology’s biggest impact, Mr Immelt reckons, will include ‘shortening cycle times’ between designing products and making them. That could help manufacturers in the rich world compensate for higher wage costs compared with those in emerging economies such as China.”

Shortening cycle times isn’t just about offsetting wage differentials. Shorter cycle times are required to keep pace with the increasing clock speed of business in general. Derek Singleton writes, “The next manufacturing revolution is about empowering individuals with the same types of manufacturing capabilities that were once only available to large corporations. The plummeting costs of manufacturing-related technologies (e.g., CAD software and 3D printers) have reached the point where this field is now accessible to the average person. It’s easier than ever to become a manufacturer.” [“Anyone Can Be A Manufacturer,” Software Advice, 13 March 2012] John Rogers, Founder and CEO of Local Motors, told Singleton “that he started the company ‘to speed up the pace of technological innovation in the automotive industry.’ But he also wanted to prove a point: everyday people can be manufacturers.” Singleton insists when you look “at the technologies available today” you would have to agree with Rogers than anyone can be manufacturer. Those technologies include:

“• Crowdsourcing – Crowdsourcing is an approach to idea generation and product development, not a technology. However, there’s a variety of tech resources available that enable crowdsourcing for any kind of project; check out Open Innovation for a great list.

“• CAD Software – 2D and 3D designs created with CAD software can be saved in a sharable file format before production. You can access professional-grade CAD software on a subscription basis for $19.95/month from Local Motors.

“• 3D Printing – 3D printers are rapidly decreasing in price, making it affordable to create a prototype model of a CAD design. Some 3D printers, such as Objet, are already powerful enough to make small numbers of finished items. As this technology advances, the hope is that individuals will be able to produce larger batches of finished products.

“• Manufacturing-as-a-Service – Manufacturing is following software’s lead and becoming an on-demand service. Online manufacturing directories like Alibaba and ThomasNet can connect you with a manufacturer that will build for you so you don’t have to invest in any equipment.

“• Cloud Computing – The Cloud isn’t a manufacturing-specific technology but it deserves a mention because of how cost-effective it makes running a product business. Cloud solutions like NetSuite and Plex provide affordable solutions for managing orders, inventory, accounting and other business functions.

“• E-commerce – Of course, the Internet is a critical enabler for any business these days. Sites like eBay, Amazon, or your own e-commerce website, make it easy for customers to find and buy from you. If you’re interested in running your own e-commerce site, you should check out Volusion and BigCommerce.

Singleton concludes, “Collectively, these technologies make it easier than ever to go from idea to product to market. We’ve already seen technological advances democratize music, film, publishing and other industries. Why not manufacturing?” Ashlee Vance reports that the 3D printing has been around for over two decades. She also reports that additive manufacturing sector is growing rapidly. [“3D Printers: Make Whatever You Want,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 26 April 2012] She writes:

“For 25 years, carmakers and aerospace companies have used industrial-grade 3D printers to fashion prototype parts for their vehicles. More recently, the medical field has turned to the machines to make custom hearing aids and invisible braces, while architects use the technology to produce models and consumer electronics companies to build prototypes of their latest gadgets. To a range of industries, 3D printers have become indispensable for doing business. The large industrial systems now run in price from about $5,000 to $1 million. These days, they can print in different colors of plastic and employ other materials such as metal, glass, and ceramics. Software makers are harnessing this power, making much better tools for manipulating objects. Today the market for 3D printers stands at about $1.7 billion, says Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that tracks the industry. With sales of the machines rising quickly, Wohlers predicts the market will reach $3.7 billion by 2015.”

According to Vance the first 3D printer was developed by Chuck Hull, an engineer and physicist, about three decades ago while he was working “for a modest-size manufacturer called Ultra Violet Products, or UVP.” She continues the story:

“Hull helped steer the development of the company’s ultraviolet-light curable resins, which were used to add protective coatings to furniture and other surfaces. Always a tinkerer, Hull began experimenting after hours with laying down numerous coats of the resin to make plastic models. ‘I had been an engineer for 20 years, and it was always really difficult to prototype plastic parts,’ says Hull, now 73. ‘You would design a part, go to a toolmaker who would build a plastic model, then you would need to fix any problems and start again. The whole process took about six weeks, so the idea of building parts for yourself with a machine was really cool.’ In a back room at the UVP offices, Hull crafted the first crude 3D printer. He filled a small basin with liquid resin and placed a platform controlled by an elevator mechanism inside the basin. Then Hull mounted a movable UV light fixture with a shutter overhead and wrote some software to control the orchestration of all these parts. The platform would be raised near the resin’s surface so that just a thin layer of the liquid sat on top. The light would turn on, the plastic would harden, and then the machine would lower the platform, lay down a new layer of resin, and the process could begin anew.”

Although Singleton and Vance are correct that additive manufacturing means that anyone can be a manufacturer. Individual manufacturers (even thousands of them) don’t really amount to a revolution. Marsh notes, “So far, however, 3D printing has yet to find much application in routine parts production, where items are made in batch runs counted in tens of thousands or even millions, and where the technology is normally too expensive compared with orthodox procedures such as metal cutting or plastics injection molding.” Nevertheless, it is part of spectrum of manufacturing processes that taken together do form the basis of a manufacturing revolution. He explains:

“3D printing is the latest manifestation of a broad range of ‘additive’ technologies in manufacturing – where materials are fused or bonded – as opposed to the way of making parts by conventional ‘subtractive’ machining. … Over the next few years, the biggest optimists in the sector believe applications of the technology will gradually broaden out to make it possible to use the process for making parts in large production runs. That could be especially the case for small complex shapes where the economic advantages of using 3D printing are more established than for big, simple ones. Hans Langer, chief executive of Eos, a Munich-based company making 3D printers, says the new processes should not be regarded as mere substitutes for current techniques, but as paving the way to make new types of factory items that would be close to impossible to create with current techniques. ‘We now have a way to make items that are lighter, use materials more economically and behave differently to products made today. 3D printing could lead to a completely new way to approach manufacturing,’ adds Mr Langer.”

There appears to be a growing consensus that we are entering (or in the infancy of) a new industrial revolution. More analysts are coming to the conclusion that, with labor costs rising overseas and transportation costs increasing, it makes sense to move manufacturing closer to consumers. Additive manufacturing will help make that decision much easier for some companies.

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