3D printers are redefining the future of digital manufacturing

Just how big can digital manufacturing get in Australia? In May 2018, a Melbourne manufacturing plant unveiled the latest digital manufacturing innovation: the world’s largest metal printer. This beast of a machine is about the size of a bus—and it could probably print one, too.

Using kinetic fusion, the printer blasts cold metal particles at supersonic speeds. The force is so great that the metal particles fuse together in the process. It can print and polish a titanium bicycle frame in no time at all, and it has the potential to print everything from aerospace parts to ship hulls.

Keep up with the shift toward digital manufacturing

Clearly, digital manufacturing—which has an ecosystem revolving around AI, AR, VR, cloud-based technology, 3D printing, human-machine interaction, and robotics—is enabling Australian companies to improve operational efficiencies in a cost-competitive market.

Digital manufacturing, in general, and 3D printing, in particular, have generated a lot of hype but most workplaces don’t have a 3D printer, and chances are, you’re not going to find a 3D printer whirring away if you pop into the neighbourhood library or your kid’s school. Yet, digital manufacturing has been transforming a handful of tasks and industries behind the scenes, without generating much media attention in the process. The most obvious—and heartwarming—example is in medical devices.

Patients no longer need to accept off-the-rack products that may not be an ideal match for their body type or particular needs. Instead, it’s now common to 3D print bespoke teeth, hearing aids, and artificial joints. To give you an idea of just how commonplace it’s become, there are now efforts in Australia dedicated to producing 3D-printed hearing aids quickly and cheaply.

Watch out for the imminent mainstream crossover

As expected, the nascent commercial 3D print industry mainly focuses on producing a narrow range of items, but it’s reaching an inflection point. Figures from Wohlers Associates indicate that 135 companies produced industrial 3D printer systems in 2017, a jump from 97 in 2016. The research also shows almost 530,000 desktop 3D printers were sold in 2017, close to double the amount (278,000) sold in 2015. 3D printing is entering that stage of the product development cycle where new technology makes the leap from nerdy novelty to everyday bit of kit.

You can find even more evidence of the growing popularity of 3D printers in the number of companies forming new partnerships and investing in new technologies to get ahead of the trend. For example, HP and Deloitte formed an alliance to fast track the “digital reinvention of the US$12 trillion global manufacturing industry.” The goal is to help companies accelerate product design, speed up production, create more flexible supply chains, and optimise the manufacturing lifecycle.

Deloitte presumably chose to partner with HP specifically because it’s got the bases covered when it comes to state-of-the-art 3D printer technology, such as its industry-leading Multi Jet Fusion technology, which uses a fine-grained polyamide powder to create smooth surfaces and minimise the need for post-production finishing. Partnerships and corporate initiatives like this one prove that experts see 3D print and other forms of smart manufacturing as the way of the future.

Are you prepared for the new order?

Given that 3D printers will start to show up more regularly in workplaces across Australia and drive the next step in our technological evolution, what does that mean for this nation’s IT teams? At the risk of stating the obvious, here’s how you can prepare for the great leap forward into the “fourth industrial revolution:”

  • Recruit or train up talent that can use the technology
  • Don’t get carried away with the prospect of shiny new toys. Try out one printer and see if it delivers what’s expected before putting in a large order for a fleet of 20.
  • Invest in appropriate IT data management and security to protect proprietary data, the lifeblood of manufacturing in the 21st century.

As Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen stated, “The digitalisation of global manufacturing operations and practices will impact companies and consumers around the world, and 3D printing will play an important role in fundamentally changing manufacturing as we know it.” In short, high-tech manufacturing’s time has come—and you best be prepared.