Manufacturing a solution to the demands of the digital revolution

Stephen Dyson explores how digital manufacturing can help businesses undergoing a digital revolution.

Businesses across every industry are currently undergoing a form of digital transformation. Almost continuous Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity means employees are now able to work at a pace and style previously impracticable, from wherever and whenever they want.

This digital freedom has given rise to ‘Customer 3.0’, who expects to be able to access products and services that meet his or her individual needs at any time and via any channel they choose.

It’s important, therefore, that businesses take advantage of the opportunities that digitalisation offers to improve and transform their products and processes, enabling them to achieve the flexibility, agility and speed to market needed to meet the demands of this new generation of customers.

This is particularly true of the manufacturing industry, in which customers increasingly want rapidly-produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days at a level of quality that will guarantee satisfaction.

Companies looking to get their products quickly into market will no longer wait for lengthy prototype production processes. The fast pace of the digital economy requires manufacturers to adapt and provide rapid services as standard.

Furthermore, and in addition to meeting the demands of bringing high-quality end products to market as quickly as possible, manufacturers are also faced with the challenge of driving down development and production costs in order to remain profitable.

Fortunately, however, the latest manufacturing technology can make this possible.

Recent developments in digital manufacturing techniques offer manufacturers the versatility and scalability they need to meet the evolving demands of their customers and succeed in an increasingly competitive environment.

Quite simply, the future of manufacturing is changing.

The application of automated 3D printing techniques, CNC (computerised numerical control) machining, and injection moulding means that CAD designs soon become reality, with high-quality prototype components and end-use production parts delivered within a matter of days.

Infinite variety

3D printing, for example, is fast becoming a popular option for short production runs – especially useful in a product’s prototype and testing phase. The ability to simultaneously print multiple components can be a strong benefit to a business, as is being able to create intricate, complex geometrical shapes that demand great dimensional tolerances. What’s more, it can remove the costs associated with tooling, and its potential for an almost infinite variety of outputs makes it perfect for iterative product development.

By way of illustration, consider GE’s latest advances in 3D printing for aeronautical applications. The LEAP engine, produced by GE in partnership with the French firm, Safran Aircraft Engines, features, amongst other things, 3D-printed fuel nozzles. Introduced in the second quarter of 2016, these particular components are 25 per cent lighter than their predecessors, five times stronger, and are now printed as one component, where previously they comprised 19 conventionally manufactured components that required assembly. It’s not hard to see the significant cost savings that this change in the company’s manufacturing process will deliver in the coming years.

Precision-crafted parts

3D printing may not be appropriate for every situation, however, particularly when larger production runs are required, and it’s here that CNC machining might be better employed.

A process in which computers are used to control high-speed milling and turning tool, CNC machining is assisting production processes across a range of industries. The process delivers a fast turnaround of precision-crafted parts and products in a variety of materials which are ideal for on-demand prototypes or even as end-use parts.

The University of Houston, for example, is using CNC machining in the creation of custom-machined aluminium-joint housings for a powered exoskeleton it is designing and building as part of a robotics system aimed at helping paraplegics to walk again.

And Sportech, a product development partner to seven of the world’s largest power-sports vehicle makers, employs rapid CNC machining to validate the design of components used in snowmobiles, utility vehicles and motorcycles prior to large-scale manufacturing.

Looking to the future

Interest in digital manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and CNC machining is on the rise.

Recent significant investments in the technology demonstrate the extent to which big businesses appreciate the value it offers. From its ability to optimise and augment existing processes, to the cost savings it can deliver, serious thought is being given to capitalising on the technology for efficiency, savings and profit.

Indeed, according to a recent Gartner report, the growing understanding of the value that 3D printing in particular can deliver in producing product and augmenting operations has seen significant investment in the technology by industries across the globe.

And the future looks bright too, with the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) offering even greater opportunities for efficiencies and cost savings. According to a TATA Consultancy survey, those manufacturers already utilising IoT solutions to complement their existing processes saw an average 28.5 per cent annual increase in revenue – and this is only likely to rise in the coming years.

As the IoT continues to develop, and factory floors becomes more connected, information around product usage, production capabilities, and market and customer requirements will be shared and analysed faster than ever before. The data it generates and the insight this provides will allow manufacturers to transform everything from their operating models to their processes, ultimately improving the quality and speed of their offering.

The digital revolution is happening, and with it come opportunities and challenges in equal measure. Customers’ expectations around service delivery are changing, but then so are the ways in which these expectations can be met.

As we head into 2017, manufacturers should be looking toward digital processes as a way of addressing the evolving demand for fast and high-quality parts and prototypes needed for product testing and development, and for delivering these on time, and at the lowest possible cost.

For the future success of manufacturing businesses and their customers alike, utilisation of digital manufacturing is key.

Stephen Dyson is head of product development at Proto Labs

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