July 11, 2019
It is tempting to look at new technologies as replacements, improvements, or updates on what has gone before, but occasionally a technology is so different it requires a whole new way of thinking. Additive manufacturing is just such a technology. It is less evolution and more revolution.
Think about the basics. Firstly, we’ve spent decades taking solid pieces of raw materials and milling them, cutting them, carving them, and grinding them to make smaller parts. This goes back to the pyramids and has resulted in some of the most beautiful art and architecture. Most of the seven wonders of the modern world were built with subtractive techniques. Secondly, the industrial revolution was based on volume manufacturing. When Henry Ford said, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black,” it was because he wanted to produce as many identical parts as possible. This was the invention of the production line and blazed a trail to modern manufacturing.
Then, along comes additive manufacturing, with its fancy 3D printers, new materials, and its lot size of one. It’s revolutionary and has turned our entire thinking on its head. Now we’re adding material, not subtracting, and volume is achieved by the speed of the machine and the number of machines deployed. Now everything we we’re taught about production, about manufacturing, doesn’t make sense. Now we need to look at the entire product lifecycle differently. We need to apply additive thinking.
Perfect Timing for a Revolution
So, why is now the right time for additive manufacturing to join the revolution? We’re currently in the midst of the forth industrial revolution and a drive to the smart factory of the future and as a digital native with a lot size of one, additive manufacturing has the opportunity to be the poster child of the revolution.
Consumers are demanding change too. They are seeking instant gratification and a level of customization that traditional manufacturing just can’t deliver. Step up additive once again, with the ability to produce custom parts on-demand on printers deployed anywhere in the world. More and more consumers want to know their products are responsibly sourced and manufactured, and once more additive offers real sustainable benefits.
What is Additive Thinking?
Having established why we need additive thinking, what is it and why is it needed? To truly benefit from a new technology, you need to think about the entire product lifecycle differently. Additive thinking starts at ideation, it goes through design and development, prototyping, production and even end of life. Additive thinking impacts functionality, and the ability to personalize and the entire economics of a product. To just think of additive as a method to replace traditionally manufactured parts is leave a lot on the table.
At the ideation stage, there are numerous dynamics at play, feasibility, economics, and of course, consumer demand. These dynamics, and many more, are effected by additive thinking. For example, a product that fails the feasibility test because expected volume is too low to justify traditional tooling and setup may be viable using additive manufacturing. This can mean products that would not get off the drawing board or out of the initial creative meeting will find their way into the hands of the consumer. Other dynamics like strength and weight can change drastically using additive manufacturing, allowing parts to be formed differently and for new solutions that could not be delivered before.
So, what now?
Whilst it won’t take a whole generation of engineers to come through to apply additive thinking in the manufacturing landscape, it will take some education and enlightenment that is not about promoting one printer or one material over another. The additive manufacturing industry needs to explain to the wider manufacturing world why it is ready for prime time and how it can add value. This might mean explaining where it can best be used and even when it shouldn’t be used. It is about showing examples of how print farms are used to build higher volumes, and how the challenges of scale and speed are being overcome. It is about sharing developments of new materials that have the qualities needed, be that weight, strength, flexibility, or even ESD (Electro Static Discharge) properties. This will benefit the entire industry. After all, a rising tide lift all boats.
When only volume is king, uniformity equates to consistency and efficiency. In a new world order where individuality has more value and where agility is essential, thinking needs to change. Part of that change is additive thinking, vive the revolution!