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Undoubtedly everybody has heard one (if not all) of the manufacturing “buzzwords” of 2019. The trend towards “Smart Factory” is not only happening in North America but has spread across Europe and into Asia as well. Earlier this year, I presented at a Smart Factory consortium in Busan, South Korea where the government began an initiative, and pledged to invest $1.7B USD, to create 30,000 smart factories in Korea by 2022. Similar initiatives have already been underway for the last few years across Asia, including in the manufacturing powerhouses of China and Japan.
Manufacturers, technologists and innovators alike are teaming together to accelerate the realization of this new industrial concept. But what does “Smart Factory” really mean?
At its core, the foundation of the next industrial revolution boils down to two elements.
1. Improving manufacturing agility
2.Providing more services/functionality to the end-user
Improving manufacturing agility
Manufacturers around the globe are constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency. By incorporating lean manufacturing principles, such as just-in-time manufacturing, they can dramatically save on warehousing costs and adapt to product changes at the drop of a hat. It is becoming increasingly clear that a connected and digital manufacturing workflow is key to enabling a leaner manufacturing process.
Providing more for the customer
These days, customers are demanding more from the products and services they purchase. They are demanding truly tailored products and solutions to their unique requirements. Gone are the days of the mass manufacturing line pumping out millions of homogeneous units. Businesses and consumers want their own customized color, design, features and more, and manufacturers need to adopt technologies that can handle individualized production.
A great example of a company adopting additive manufacturing (AM) to solve this challenge is SIEMENS Mobility. Working in the rail industry, SIEMENS Mobility’s typical production lots are small and each customer can have different product requirements. By using AM, SIEMENS Mobility provides more value to their customers through quickly delivering repeatable and customized (or evolving) spare parts.
“Through customized additive manufacturing we are achieving maximum customer satisfaction, because the client is actively participating in the creation and optimization of its (their) parts. This would not be possible with mass production” says Andreas Düvel, SIEMENS Mobility Sales Representative – Customer Service.
3D printing’s role
3D printing does not solve all the manufacturing world’s woes with a single, easy-to-use device. There are many different shapes and sizes of manufacturing equipment, each tailored to perform their unique tasks, which 3D printing cannot replace.
It is an excellent technology for constantly changing designs, digital manufacturing inventories and new market innovations. And the technology is still changing with each passing year. As this technology progresses through new material developments, improved reliability and increased throughput, it will continue to solidify its place in the manufacturing world.
Untapped potential… today
There is a growing sentiment among manufacturers that have purchased 3D printers that having this technology alone is enough to solve their manufacturing agility issues. True, 3D printing is an extremely valuable technology, but most current users are only utilizing the visible iceberg of its capabilities. The remaining significant potential lies beneath the water’s surface and can only be uncovered by making 3D printing an investment into your future manufacturing growth strategy. 3D printing is almost synonymous with rapid prototyping. But given the recent advancements in materials, capabilities and repeatability, there is so much more that can be done with this technology. More and more, I meet customers that are using 3D printing for advanced functional prototyping (life cycle testing, pilot product development, alpha/beta phase product development) and factory floor manufacturing aids.
Last month at Stratasys’ annual Asia Pacific User Forums, Andrew Storm, CEO at Eckhart (a leading manufacturing solutions company) shared numerous used cases demonstrating how 3D printing and Industry 4.0 go hand in hand. “We believe that 3D printing is the catalyst that allows businesses to test hypotheses much faster than they’ve ever been able to before”, explains Storm, “Speed and customization ultimately is empowered through the use of 3D printing.”
Manufacturers should be emboldened to make 3D printing part of their future strategy. With this approach, they can reap the benefits of both short-term efficiency gains and adequately preparing their workforce and processes for the longer-term 3D printing production vision. Without this two-pronged approach, manufacturers may find themselves behind in the increasingly competitive global environment.