Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a manufacturing process which is fast becoming an integral part of the factory of the future. Products are designed using software-based CAD systems and then layer-upon-layer of material is added to fabricate almost any object, including aircraft parts, dental restorations, medical implants, automobiles, jewelry and soon, possibly even human tissue.
Industry adoption of AM is increasing rapidly. The analyst firm SmarTech Publishing, reported that revenues for metal 3D printing grew 24% to exceed $1bn for the first time in 2017, and they predict that revenues will reach $9.3bn by 2027. Rolls Royce has been using AM to manufacture aerospace products for over a decade.
Cost advantages of AM
One of the immediate advantages of AM is that without the need to weld or attach individual components together, there are no weak spots that can be compromised or stressed, reducing the possibility of defects. In addition, by creating 3D printed models using CAD software, designs can be verified prior to manufacturing, resulting in fewer production errors.
Using CAD software to create products enables designers to make changes with a click of a button as opposed to endless design meetings with engineering teams. Prototypes can be made in a few hours as opposed to a few days. Last minute changes are also easier to make, which speeds up the process of executing engineering change orders while enabling companies to achieve mass personalization where products can be designed for individual preferences.
AM is also more environmentally friendly and can reduce material costs and waste by as much as 90%, since layers of material are added to create a product instead of cutting away from a larger piece.
AM integration with the factory of the future
As manufacturers increasingly adopt AM as a viable production alternative, they find themselves facing many new system integration opportunities and challenges. For example, AM production lines can adapt quickly but only at the speed that design specifications and change orders can be transmitted and received, so there needs to be a secure and efficient means to integrate the required data.
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In addition, by enabling feedback from shop-floor additive machines to Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), there can be a real-time analysis of processes and product data to improve product quality and manufacturing efficiency. Data about the number of units produced and the amount of materials used can also be shared with business management systems, such as CRM, ERP, logistics, warehouse management, and finance, for more effective material, inventory and supplier management.
There is also a need for data integration between manufacturers and consumers as the increased customization of products will require collecting data about end-user requirements and preferences.
In order for data from AM to be fully utilized there needs to be a manufacturing environment in which shop floor and back office systems can communicate easily. A steady stream of performance and production data needs to be collected, stored, analyzed and shared efficiently and reliably. In addition, throughout the entire process, all the information needs to be secure to protect intellectual property and customer data.
Point-to-point system integrations can be more resource efficient in the beginning since projects are limited in scope meaning internal resources can often be used. But, in time, these projects can multiply rapidly and become unwieldy as more and more systems become part of a factory’s information network.
A more resource efficient and practical solution can be a multi-point third-party software platform that provides scalability and proven unified data handling for all of the integrated systems. An integration platform can become the backbone of an information hub that has the necessary scalability and data security to rapidly integrate back-office systems into the AM processes.
The advantages and adoption of AM will only increase as technology advances. In the age of modern digital manufacturing, no information system can be too far removed from front-office production and operational decision-making. Creating an IT infrastructure for sharing and analyzing production data can eventually leverage the increased efficiencies of AM manufacturing processes throughout the entire organization.