The article, “Mastering the Hybrid Factory,” is a must-read for anybody who thinks 3D printing is a niche technology or something slated for a distant future. It’s a technology that is arriving in a big way, right now. As the article notes, the additive manufacturing industry (another term for 3D printing) grew by nearly 30% last year to $2.2 billion. And it’s just getting started.
One of the most dramatic effects of the technology is how it’s closing the gap between design and production.
New product introductions have always involved an often-complex back and forth process between design and manufacturing. Make the prototype, test it, revise it, and then build it again, and so on, as the cycle continues through completion. The making of each prototype is no easy task. In many industries it involves creating molds for casting that can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars each, and then take many days to complete. Combine that with the naturally iterative process of product design, and you can easily burn many months and millions of dollars before a working prototype reaches the point where the design is ready to move forward to production.
What the article makes clear is that this entire process is being utterly changed. The gap between design and production isn’t just shrinking. It’s being obliterated.
John Fleming, executive vice president of global manufacturing at Ford, says in the article that his company is “able to get production-level parts in a matter of days, compared with months using traditional methods.”
Getting to market faster is an incalculable advantage in its own right, of course. But there is an even more important factor: the faster prototyping process creates more freedom for design engineers to improve the product without worrying about the time and cost of trying something new. They can just print a prototype.
This is what Fleming calls the “game-changer.” As he explains it, “Our world-class team is allowed so much more time to innovate and improve products because they have more opportunities to utilize multiple variations more efficiently.”
This is exactly what we have seen happen in other areas of automation, from CAD in product design to word processing for authors. People who can try out ideas and change them easily can create better products.
Companies that have been investing in this technology for some time are ahead of the game. But it isn’t too late to now get involved. The technology is now starting to spread rapidly, so we can expect that many manufacturers over the next couple of years will be using 3D printing in some form as part of the new product development process.
If you’re in manufacturing, it looks like the acceleration of product development is about to shift into a whole new gear. Fasten your seat belts.