In my last blog I presented a brief view of the future of automation as seen by Dick Morley. Dick’s adaptive manufacturing concept relied in part on 3-D printing. I would like to focus in on 3-D printing and the impact it will have on industrial automation.
Technology experts were brought together by The Atlantic magazine (online) in February 2013 to discuss the impact new technology has on manufacturing in the magazine’s “Manufacturing and Technology” series. Some of the discussion talked about the impact of 3-D printing on automation with mixed thoughts as to the impact.
I agree with several different aspects presented by the panelists. 3-D printing will not replace injection molding or stamped parts since 3-D printing will not match the speed or cost for the manufacture simple devices. Using new imagining technologies, like the Kinect, it becomes easy and quick to capture the structure of complex items to prepare those items for manufacture. The product becomes a database of bits in a computer file ready for production anywhere.
Rapid changes and improvements in 3-D printing technology will have a large impact on industrial automation, how and where we manufacture things.
Researchers at North Carolina University have found a way to print using metal. NASA used 3-D printing with metallic powders to create a rocket engine injector that passed hot-fire trials. The time to manufacture the injector was reduced to 4 months, a time reduction of 75% with a cost reduction of 70%.
For very complex products 3-D printing can reduce the time needed for their manufacture, as evidenced by the NASA injector reference. The types of products printed are becoming more complex without a perceived limit to the complexity that can be handled.
With the ability of 3-D printing to use more exotic materials and to produce complex products it is reasonable to expect 3-D printing will become an integral part of industrial automation. The barriers to use of metals are breaking down. There is no longer the reliance on printing with specific plastics.
The types of materials that make up the product can be varied during production in a single printed process rather than built up using several processes, one for each type of material. The density of the product being printed can be varied allowing some areas of the product to be less dense or more dense where needed in a single process. The flexibility offered by 3-D printing will make it a featured method for manufacturing.
A manufacturing plant will change with the use of 3-D printing. The plant will have many 3-D printers as one of the primary tools for production but not the only tool. Complex parts and products will be created on the printers changing traditional operation. If a plant needs more capacity, the plant can buy or lease more 3-D printers. The manufacturing plant will become truly reconfigurable without the need to completely retool. It will be more self-reliant. The plant can create its own molds, dies and other infrastructure items. Everything needed to complete the product will be made in the same plant, no more waiting on parts built in another plant.
What is your vision of the impact of 3D printing on industrial automation?