In order to stay ahead in the market, it's paramount for an organization to find and implement strategies that differentiate it from others in its field. The search for value creating resources that are necessary to improve performance may come through the skills of the organization's people, as a result of unique business processes, or by finding inimitable ways to use physical resources. Regardless, companies must continue to focus on developing these resources because, as markets change, so does what it takes to remain relevant within them.
These changes in the market are happening quickly as technology continues to advance rapidly; industries are being redefined and restructured by near-constant innovation. Companies can no longer remain comfortable with the old ideal, "This is how we have always done it," because the world is changing. Organizations that grab ahold of these game-changing technologies, learn how to utilize them, and implement them in their processes will start to develop the new competitive advantages in this business era.
One of these technological revolutions has arrived to metal manufacturing in the form of additive manufacturing, an industrial 3D printing process. The time for manufacturers to start exploring how 3D printing will affect their future has arrived, and those who incorporate it into their business processes now will be ahead of the curve.
"The business impact that this technology will have is going to be quite powerful; it has the potential to completely transform supply chains," states Maximillian Eils, EOS North America's area sales manager. EOS is a current world leader in the additive manufacturing market with physical locations in 11 countries so far and 3,000 systems in production worldwide. Of these systems, 49 percent are manufacturing with metal and the other 51 percent are polymer.
In traditional manufacturing with metal-cutting machines, parts are built through methods of material removal; however, with additive manufacturing, the parts are built up layer by layer using laser sintering to melt the material powder as it is added. Manufacturers will realize significant cost savings from the reduction of waste in production since they are no longer literally throwing away millions in metal chip waste that was cut away to produce the part.
"This is non-traditional manufacturing," explains John Liddington, product specialist engineer - additive manufacturing and metrology equipment at Hartwig Inc., a U.S. distributor of CNC and 3D printing technology. "With traditional manufacturing, everything is being removed [subtracted] from a piece of stock, but in additive, we are basically making a part out of dust. We are adding material to the part eliminating chips from the post-cutting process."
The opportunities for manufacturers utilizing this technology are substantial. Parts that could not be previously made on the traditional metal cutting machines are now able to be produced. According to Eils, "Additive manufacturing allows engineers to come up with objects, geometries, or applications that could not be done before through traditional metal removal practices. For instance, you can integrate cooling channels into tooling during printing."
The additive approach also allows manufacturers to redesign their parts for material optimization. "This technology gives you the control and ability to alter the dynamic, fundamental makeup of the part without losing any of its functionality. The end result will be the same part, with the same strength and same properties, but with significant material or weight reduction." Liddington explains.
Furthermore, by revolutionizing the way manufacturers even think about making their parts, additive manufacturing allows for the printing of complex parts as one single piece, whereas traditional manufacturing requires it to be assembled from multiple parts by welding or otherwise bracing them together.
A great example of this in the aerospace industry is the fuel nozzle for GE's LEAP jet engine. Each engine is comprised of 19 nozzles, with each nozzle previously comprised of 20 individually manufactured parts assembled together. However through additive manufacturing, this fuel nozzle is now being printed as a single part essentially eliminating 361 parts. Additionally, the printed parts are five times stronger than those made through milling, welding, and other traditional subtractive manufacturing processes.
Manufacturers should consider parts that need to be specialized on a case-by-case basis. Where they were perhaps previously treated with a one-size-fits-all approach to the part, there is now the capability for individual customization. According to Liddington, "If you think about the medical world, instead of making something just work for a patient, they can take X-rays of that individual, measure precisely what they need, and print it to be exact for that one case. It will fit perfectly for that individual, so you will have better quality and less pain for the patient. It is absolutely phenomenal."
While additive manufacturing can be used for prototyping and R&D, it no longer has to stop there; this disruptive technology is now a reality in production. Manufacturers are able to take a current part, create a CAD drawing of it, and put it into a system like the EOS additive equipment to print it. Next, they can move the part to a machine, such as an EDM machine, to remove the stabilizing base it is printed on, and complete the production with a mill or lathe to finish. Manufacturers can then inspect and measure with the CMM to ensure that the printed part meets the desired standards while maintaining its strength and functionality.
Changing the mindset and approach to product development will be the biggest challenge to the industry, but as manufacturers become more familiar with the technology, the potential for the future is vast. While there is a current discussion regarding the skills gap in the manufacturing industry, companies have the unique opportunity to address the skills gap and new technology by looking for engineers with the ability to incorporate this new way of thinking. Notes Eils: "Companies must invest both in the technology and the engineers designing and redesigning the parts for it. If they do not want to miss the train, then it is crucial to begin understanding the possibilities that are here now with additive."
Industry 4.0's factory of the future will be an automated system where manufacturers can start the processes controlled within a network of computers run by a small team of engineers. They will be responsible for these machines making parts, the robots moving material back and forth, and it all culminating in an end result of highly accurate and efficient production with less waste. The question that is no longer in the distant future for manufacturing is: Are you ready for what additive manufacturing can do for your production?