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What is the ‘Internet of Things’ and what does it mean for additive manufacturing?

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Our computers and smartphones are omnipresent in our lives, and even our cars and televisions are now online, creating a smooth flow of data throughout our daily lives. These thousands of interconnected devices have been collectively dubbed the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things was first named in 1999 Kevin Ashton of Procter & Gamble. Since then, the term has become widespread to the extent that some argue the term has become increasingly meaningless. However, this next stage in technology’s ongoing evolution shows no sign of slowing down, so it’s important that we, as additive manufacturing professionals, consider what it means for our industry. Our long-term goal should not be to simply acknowledge these trends while still maintaining outdated systems and processes, but to lead the way in making them work to our fullest advantage.

Indeed, the concept’s importance to the manufacturing industry as a whole has led to the term ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ gaining increasing currency as a part of Industry 4.0. But what does all this actually mean in practice?

 

What does it mean for our customers?

More and more business takes place online than ever before. This means that our customers will not only expect to be able to place and track their orders online, but will expect a fully consistent experience across all channels of communication. An effective system for receiving requests and orders online must be implemented. Furthermore, speed is of the essence. Customers will expect a comprehensive, accurate quote to be delivered quickly, as soon as their project data has been submitted, and be able to place their order with a single press of a button.

Once this takes place, all project data should be captured in a form that will allow AM teams to begin the project straight away, and access any information they need immediately, from anywhere in the world. The old virtues of customer service and communication still very much apply — the goal is to streamline and enhance them as much as possible!

 

What does it mean for our data?

An effective approach to data acquisition and centralisation is essential, especially for global operations that maintain sites around the world. From the moment any customer or project data is acquired, it should be part of a centralised system that will help provide visibility and consistency on a global scale. A key point is that this must apply to data gathered through all channels of communication — not just online. For example, if an order is received over the phone, processes must be in place to ensure it is captured and managed in the same way as if it had been received through an online portal.

This also applies to project data. In this regard, analytics play a more vital role in the success of manufacturing operations than ever before. That makes it more important than ever that data is captured automatically, and presented in an actionable form that can be used to drive ongoing process improvements. Consider the quality control stage, for instance. The automation of the part checking process is becoming not only feasible, but advisable, allowing problems to be predicted and avoided, and production data to be automatically compiled in detailed reporting. This way, the customers benefit from quality 3D printed parts — delivered on time and to budget — and AM operations are able to take a high-level view of their processes’ overall effectiveness.

This sort of high-level visibility can be applied to virtually any area of an AM operation, but only if the right tools and processes are in place to ensure data can be gathered accurately and automatically.

 

What does it mean for our operations?

A huge part of the Internet of Things is an increasing emphasis on the streamlining of internal processes. This concept has huge implications for manufacturing as a whole, as more companies begin to explore additive technologies and develop sophisticated hybrid processes around them. This makes machine scheduling and production management increasingly challenging, as multiple processes must be brought into alignment in order to properly complement each other.

Automation is the key here. Through the use of increasingly sophisticated algorithms, forward-thinking companies have been able to successfully automate much of their production scheduling. However, this does not mean sacrificing the autonomy of engineers and AM specialists for the sake of speed over quality. Instead, this should be thought of as an opportunity to enhance teams’ capabilities, allowing them to focus on delivering quality work and innovative solutions rather than managing administrative tasks.

Global leaders are already committing wholeheartedly to this approach. For example, at Siemens’ German electronics manufacturing facilities, 75% of the processes are fully automated.

 

What will the future hold?

There is certainly a long way to go to establish a true Internet of Things across the world of additive manufacturing. This will involve developing the tools to implement these concepts, and successfully establishing them as a fundamental part of company cultures. However, with patience and perseverance, we will soon see the smart factories of tomorrow come to fruition.