President's Commentary: Material Changes Offer Major Economic Benefits
Many people looking at the technology of the future have focused on electronics and software. While these two have fueled the information revolution, another technology is poised to impose significant changes on life at large. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has the potential to alter the way items are made and economies of scale are leveraged.
While additional development is needed, 3D printing holds considerable promise for more efficient and effective manufacturing. Government, industry and academia have been pursuing new applications in their laboratories and in practice. Businesses already have incorporated its advances in their manufacturing processes, and that trend has caught hold and is growing. Issues such as time to need, economies of scale and flexibility promoted by additive manufacturing will drive major changes in the supply chain and logistics operating models.
What sets additive manufacturing apart from other means of manufacturing is the very definition of the process. Many parts, large or small, are typically built with methods that end in material being trimmed or removed, en masse or piecemeal, from a larger section. But instead of sculpting a part from the greater body of material, 3D printing builds the part or end item from the beginning with miniature deposits upon a base. This creates more opportunities to experiment with different materials and investigate more effective designs in the course of manufacturing. It is easier to build than to cut, especially with complex geometric designs.
Design is no longer encumbered by deliberate traditional manufacturing processes and associated waste of material, as 3D printing can increase speed of production significantly and efficiently. And a design can be developed in one location and manufactured in another location in rapid fashion. In a military application, for example, a part for a piece of battlefield equipment could be remotely designed at an engineering facility and produced in the theater of operations, cutting down its production and transportation time.
The process offers an attractive and significant alternative to traditional battlespace logistics. It can lighten the logistics footprint for deployed forces, allow transportation elements to bypass dangerous routes and reduce the time of delivery. It also has the potential to change the concept of maintenance, as combat forces would not need to haul huge inventories of spare parts with them.
Unique parts need not suffer from costs incurred by limited economies of scale. Instead of starting up an assembly line to produce a single replacement part, that component could be generated under conditions where its only cost is that of production. This approach also will change design processes as improvements can be rapidly implemented as part of the development and production process. Shorter production runs serve as an aid to rapid innovation. What traditionally would take weeks might take only hours.
Education can benefit by using additive manufacturing to prototype new educational ideas and concepts in 3D. Ideas can be realized and quickly brought to life. Enhancements can be experimented physically to determine their value. In most sciences, including medicine, the additive manufacturing process can add to the value chain. Even exacting human body parts can be generated by additive processes.
Simple consumer items could be sold by customizing them to individual customers. For example, a person might buy shoes by standing on a sensor-equipped platform in a shoe store on which the individual’s feet would be measured and their shape and weight distribution determined. The customer then would choose a shoe style that would be built to the individual’s specifications on a while-you-wait basis. The same model could be applied to some types of clothing.
Other technologies could influence even more revolutionary applications. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, could lead to parts manufacturing that adjusts itself during the process as needed. More data for AI and machine learning will lead to more efficient design as a part’s information database grows.
The industrial age began with the manufacture of parts that were interchangeable, which in turn led to mass production and the assembly line. Now, additive manufacturing threatens to turn that paradigm on its head with the capability of generating customized components that enable greater variety, increased efficiency and, in the final product, more efficacy. The assembly line may give way to the manufacturing table. If you can imagine it, 3D printing probably will make it happen.