A few months ago, I wrote about how Lockheed Martin is investing in a 3D printing initiative as part of a fully digitized manufacturing process, something they call the Digital Tapestry, that will be used to produce critical components for air and spacecraft.
Everything in manufacturing needs to be digital, said the article, and I agree.
But even I’ve been surprised by how fast this technology is moving. Digital manufacturing isn’t just the future. It has already arrived as a serious force in manufacturing. Three recent news items have brought this fact home quite forcefully.
In August, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about how 3D printing has already made the leap from low-end novelty applications to serious industrial use. According to the article, last year alone “more than 9,800 commercial [3D printing] devices — some large enough to print V6 engine blocks — were sold at an average price of $90,370 and for as high as $5 million.” That’s serious manufacturing equipment.
Less than a week later, I came across this news story: NASA and its partners are accelerating testing on 3D-printed rocket engine components. NASA says it has tested the “most complex rocket engine part ever designed”—an injector that would have required “163 individual parts to be produced and then assembled” using traditional methods, but requires only two parts when produced on a 3D printer. The part has performed well in tests and NASA plans to use it in space launches in the near future.
Upon reading that, I thought it would be hard to imagine a more critical, high-risk application than a space launch!
But then came along the news this week that doctors in China have implanted the first-ever 3D-printed vertebra into a human being! Surgeons opted for the 3D printed part over the traditional titanium solution, not only for cost reasons but for precision and effectivity. “The team at Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing created a perfect replica of a piece of the boy’s spine, which did not require surgical cement or screws upon implantation.” The boy is said to be recovering well.
It’s safe to say that if 3D printing is being used for everything from trinkets to space flights to a human spine, then it’s a technology to be reckoned with.
I wonder how many manufacturing enterprises are truly ready for this revolution. Has your company developed a strategy and roadmap for digital manufacturing? Have you started acting upon it? The winners in the era of digital production will not just be the early adopters of 3D printing on the manufacturing floor. It will be the companies that have developed the end-to-end infrastructure to support this new technology.
Think about it. If 3D printers can produce practically anything on demand in large quantities, then every other step in the process, from the first design to the plant floor, had better be digital as well. Otherwise, your 21st century production capability will be sitting idle, waiting for quality designs to be developed and delivered.
In the article from the Chicago Tribune that I mentioned above, William King, CTO of UI Labs, says, “Over the next decade, manufacturing will become completely digital. Factories will be run from tablet computers, and every machine tool in every factory will be connected to the Internet.”
A few years ago, that would have sounded optimistic. Today, it sounds like a warning.
If you haven’t yet thought seriously about how your design-through-manufacturing processes will need to change to keep up with this revolution, and how you’re going to get there, today would be a good day to start.