Given the pace of technology change, it can be incredibly tough to distinguish the hype from true innovation. Industry 4.0, for example, has been discussed and considered for many years and while individually some technology adoption has delivered incremental wins through reduced material usage or improved efficiency, such improvements are not true innovation. It is only now, with the maturity of keystone technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, Additive Manufacturing and cloud computing, plus broad access to technology and materials, that the blue sky thinking and compelling concepts are being practically realised.
From disrupting supply chains to rethinking material use and ending over-engineering, innovation is gaining pace. Paul Croft, Director of 3DGBIRE and UltimakerGB outlines the way in which organisations of every size are beginning to combine technologies to disrupt, enhance and deliver projects that provide tangible long term change.
Disrupt and Transform
New technology alone does not represent innovation. It can be exciting. Inspiring, even. But true innovation is only achieved when that technology can be actively used to deliver quantifiable, transformative benefits. And, in many ways, that is where so many designers and manufacturers have been frustrated by the promise of Generative Design and Additive Manufacturing to date. From topological optimisation to the use of biomimicry, compelling design visions abound; but the suboptimal fit with traditional manufacturing methods has constrained the practical delivery of these innovative concepts. How can a business realise the full benefit of optimisation, for example, when the end product still has to be machined from a soft block using a CNC Machine?
What is truly exciting today, therefore, is the way multiple individual technologies are now working together to disrupt, transform and enhance. In isolation Generative Design, Artificial Intelligence, and Additive Manufacturing have of course delivered benefits. Existing processes have been enhanced, material consumption reduced, and turnaround improved. However, it is the way in which these technologies align that is breaking down the boundaries between design and manufacture and truly enabling innovation.
So what has changed? A number of factors have dovetailed to transform the design-to-manufacture relationship. Firstly, the software is no longer the preserve of high-end engineering firms. Vendors such as Autodesk have made Generative Design ubiquitously accessible. The company’s commitment to providing students and startups with its Fusion 360 software, for example, is creating an incredibly exciting funnel for new thinking outside the constraints of traditional processes. Materials are far more available, with Ultimaker’s recent partnership with leading materials companies including BASF, Clariant, DSM and DuPont, for example, providing immediate and low cost access to a wealth of materials that can be used not only for proof of concept and functional prototypes but for tooling, bridge manufacturing and production of spare parts. Many schools and universities are also investing in 3D printing labs, such as the University of West England who has developed a print research centre. The introduction of these programmes is key for introducing a new generation into the workforce with a 3D printing skill set.
This combination of a maturing technology and accessibility to both tools and materials is helping organisations of every size take extraordinary ideas from the drawing board to complete product in a way that has simply not been economically viable to date. For example, the use of Generative Design to reconsider wheelchair design, using modular assembly to provide customisation is incredibly exciting, not least because the project is using a blended manufacturing model. Component parts are delivered using different manufacturing methods – with some made on a 3D printer, others cast using the same processes that have been deployed for decades. This is true innovation: leveraging new technologies to disrupt the status quo and in this case, transform the quality of life for wheelchair users.
At the other end of the scale, aerospace company Lockheed Martin is exploring the value of combining multiple exciting technologies that, individually, offer primarily theoretical innovation. Working in tandem with the US Navy, the company is combining machine learning with additive manufacturing and robotics in a project to optimise the use of robots managing laser deposition of titanium alloys for complex, high value satellite parts. In this case, it is the addition of machine learning to the mix that is key: due to the complexity and material value it is essential to constantly monitor production quality if the use of robots is to be viable.
Clearly there are financial benefits – with the high cost of consumables, the ability to eradicate error and achieve ‘right first-time’ 3D printing is compelling. But that is not the essential innovation. This project highlights two of the most critical aspects of deliverable innovation that are set to drive extraordinary new value from these blended technologies – namely reimagining the supply chain and removing the need for compliance / health & safety driven over-engineering, both of which have very significant sustainability implications for organisations globally.
Adding machine learning to this ‘additive design by robots’ process transforms quality assurance and confidence. With a robust and proven ‘right first-time’ model parts can be built in any location on demand using highly accessible low cost 3D printers. From a defence perspective – the key stakeholders for this project – it opens the door to print on demand spare parts in typically challenging environments, from the desert to the ocean and in the future in space.
This print on demand model also has very significant ramifications for businesses globally by enabling ‘just in time’ manufacturing anywhere in the world; Not only on demand, but local, using additive manufacturing equipment within a network of small locations. No more resource draining global supply chains or warehouse operations, simply an agile, efficient supply chain and a chance to transform customer experience with on demand production.
Improved quality assurance will also enable organisations to avoid the endemic over-engineering required by current manufacturing processes. The ability to combine intelligent design with blended manufacture plus the robustness of machine learning to improve confidence in product quality will enable organisations to avoid the overuse of essential resources. Indeed, it is a great sign that certification bodies are actively working towards evolving standards in line with the changing design-to-manufacture models, with a view to minimising resource usage where possible.
This is not one off change, but an essential stepping-stone in rethinking manufacturing to deliver long term sustainable change.
The new level of material and technology accessibility is transformative: there is no need for massive investment or high level engineering expertise. Anyone can now explore these technologies – from students to multinationals – and this is now driving not just conceptual innovation but on the ground, deliverable change that is transforming lives and improving sustainability.
Industry 4.0 should not be about comparing the bill of materials required for additive versus traditional manufacture just to achieve small cost savings. There is now a very tangible opportunity to meld multiple maturing technologies and take significant steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, improve sustainability and safeguard the environment for the next generation. That is true innovation.