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How 3D printing technology will be a key part of Industry 4.0

3D printing technology, software and processes are evolving at an incredible rate, as new solutions to longstanding challenges reveal themselves virtually every month. When one steps back, this is part of a much wider and more fundamental shift in the industrial world: the transition to Industry 4.0.

 

What is Industry 4.0?

Put simply, Industry 4.0 is an approach to manufacturing that enhances quality and efficiency through strategic automation and seamless data exchange. The term was first used at the 2011 Hannover Fair, with the Working Group on Industry 4.0 launching in 2012. This strategic initiative is intended to raise Germany’s profile in the world of industry and manufacturing and establish a new standard of global best practice.

Characteristics of Industry 4.0 include:

    • Integration of technology. Much has been made in a range of industries of the ‘Internet of Things’ — the name given to the increasing number of machines that are connected to each other via the internet. Industry 4.0 acknowledges this and ensures manufacturing machines are able to speak to each other, minimising the amount of data that must be transferred manually. This will, in turn, maximise the data’s integrity and security.
    • Integration of processes. More and more manufacturers are utilising a wide range of additive and subtractive technologies to meet their customers’ requirements. Industry 4.0 seeks to bring these disparate systems and processes together in order to enhance their efficiency and deliver results that would previously have been impossible.
    • Flexibility and agility. In Industry 4.0, technology, software and processes exist to support human performance, not replace it. Through the centralization of customer and project data, teams are empowered to take a flexible approach to delivering parts and solving problems. Analytics plays a key part in this development. All key information must not only be captured, but be easily accessible in an actionable form, in order to establish a culture of continuous improvement.
    • The creation of autonomous manufacturing processes. For global operations, consistency must not come at the expense of factories’ autonomy. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Industry 4.0 seeks to implement the tools that will allow factories to make decisions independently, while still focusing on their companies’ overarching business goals. This includes the development of machine learning, where computers are able to independently develop processes in response to new data, without the need to be programmed manually. For example, a system might develop its own process for reordering materials automatically, as part of routine machine scheduling, based on the volume of orders placed in each available material.

Industry 4.0 is the foundation of tomorrow’s smart factories, and something all additive manufacturing professionals must be aware of if their operations are to reach their full potential.

 

Where does 3D printing technology enter the picture?

As a truly disruptive technology, 3D printing’s move from rapid prototyping to production encapsulates many of the challenges that Industry 4.0 must overcome to fully establish itself. While we have a greater range of 3D printing technology available than ever before, the key challenge is to establish the workflows that will allow them to exist alongside other technologies as part of global manufacturing operations.

The good news is that additive manufacturing is making considerable strides in this regard, as global leaders are bringing more and more 3D printing tasks in-house, reducing costs, enhancing efficiency, and enabling the implementation of innovative hybrid processes. Furthermore, we are seeing software evolving to keep up with the increasing sophistication of 3D printers and materials, integrating with manufacturers’ CAD platforms, slicing programs and ERP systems. There is also an increasing emphasis on automation, for everything from receiving customer orders online, to real-time quality control.

For these reasons, we would argue that 3D printing technology is well-positioned to lead the way in the move towards Industry 4.0.

 

What needs to happen next?

We need more companies that are making use of 3D printing technology to commit to implementing the processes that will make Industry 4.0 a reality. For example, Prodways recently made a firm commitment to the additive manufacturing industry’s evolution via their acquisition of AvenAo Industrie, a leading specialist in the integration of the Solidworks software platform and provider of 3D printing consultation services. This acquisition will help Prodways develop effective systems for integrating machines, software, and processes across all their additive manufacturing operations.

More companies must be willing to follow Prodways’ lead and invest in their operations’ ongoing development. This means all software tools that are utilised throughout a typical additive manufacturing project must be able to effectively communicate with each other to ensure a smooth, effortless flow of data, from the initial request (whether that is from a customer or an internal stakeholder) to delivery of the finished parts. This must include the intelligent automation of areas of the project lifecycle where teams’ energies could be better focused elsewhere. For example, if a fleet of 3D printers are connected online, the machine scheduling process can easily be turned over to a specialist software tool, which will likely prove far more efficient and eliminate any chances of human error.

There’s no doubt that the move to Industry 4.0 will be a long journey, and the challenges for manufacturers will be considerable. However, based on the evidence of the past few years, the additive manufacturing sector is set to be a key part of tomorrow’s smart factories, where processes, software and technology work in perfect harmony to deliver world-class results.