As the integration of equipment on the factory floor grows, more and more manufacturing companies are starting to think about Industry 4.0 - the new industrial revolution. Change is being driven across a range of industries thanks to automation, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) - and manufacturing is no exception. From industrial projects like Airbus' 3D printed plane component to retail projects such as Under Armour's 3D printed shoes, forward-thinking companies are adopting these technologies to gain a competitive edge. For the consumer, this means cheaper, more powerful and personalised products produced in a smart and cost-effective way.
Combining robotic production with 3D printing offers endless opportunities for manufacturing and design. New technologies allow engineers to blur the lines between the design and manufacturing process and create products for the future. To satisfy the changing consumer demand for smarter and more advanced products, manufacturers will need to review the way they manufacture things and be open to new technologies.
Driving additive manufacturing disruption
Additive manufacturing can encourage greater creativity in the manufacturing process as well as in design. Parts with high levels of complexity, impossible with traditional manufacturing techniques, can now be made. This technique is gaining momentum in the medical industry as doctors are now able to create customised body parts such as cranial and jaw implants. To produce these bespoke items, manufacturers first take a scan of a patient's bones to design a customised implant. The implant is then 3D printed in titanium and fitted to the patient. The ultimate in product 'personalisation'.
Combining additive manufacturing with robotics will increase the speed and accuracy of the manufacturing process and equip designers to create complex designs without human involvement. Today, manufacturers might be making simple objects, but will eventually reach a stage where we are creating self-assembling structures and objects. An example of this is MX3D's project to 3D print a bridge in mid-air over a canal in Amsterdam. The combination of these technologies enables MX3D to print strong and complex structures from small parts to fully functional bridges.
Design beyond 3D printing
Generative design could be the next frontier for designers and manufacturers to explore by creating even more advanced shapes and forms. Generative design is a process in which designers use specific software to optimise a design based on certain parameters, such as weight, strength, cost, materials and size, allowing the computer to come up with a number of alternative and the best most optimized design. This advancement will allow manufacturers to create more lightweight and sturdy designs in a wide range of industries from aerospace to footwear.
Generative design has already been used by Airbus to create the world's largest 3D printed airplane cabin component, which is 45 per cent (30 kg) lighter than current designs. The structurally-strong but lightweight micro-lattice shape was created with Autodesk's generative design software, Dreamcatcher, and then produced using additive manufacturing techniques. It is estimated to save up to 465,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, which is the equivalent of taking about 96,000 passenger cars off the road every year.
Connected factory floor
While robots are enabling automation, connected devices are also a big part of driving the next industrial revolution and the factory of the future. However, recent research revealed that only 30% of companies felt they were "ready and enabled" for the IoT, with one in three (32%) believing there is still much to do. To succeed, manufacturers must take full advantage of the technology available today. Although many manufacturers are using the technology through, for example, sensors to perfect and monitor how effectively machines are operating, they are still only scratching the surface of what can be achieved.
To harness the large amount of data that is being collected and use it to its full advantage, designers and manufacturers will need to come together to test what is possible in the factory of tomorrow.
Automation and connectivity within the factory will provide significant benefits to increase the capabilities, efficiency and flexibility of manufacturing systems. These technologies are a great opportunity for manufacturers and designers to redefine themselves and revolutionise the way things are made.