Accelerating smart industry with 3D printing and the I0T

September 21, 2016

Posted by: George Malim

Damian Hennessey, Proto Labs

The British manufacturing industry is experiencing a seismic shift in priorities, with digital transformation shaking up traditional working models and processes, writes Damian Hennessey, the commercial director at Proto Labs.As the 3D printing market matures, industrial-scale operations will increase dramatically and the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) will enable the expansion of a new generation of smart manufacturing sites.

The rise of the IoT across the industry will enable big data and predictive analytics to deliver the right information, product, process, service or action at the right time.

This new capability will help ‘join the dots’ on the factory floor, allowing engineers and managers to improve processes and provide a better service to customers. It will also help improve the supply chain process around material gathering and storage

Smart technology, smart business

There is also a serious business case for investing in IoT initiatives in the manufacturing sector. A recent report from TATA Consulting suggested that manufacturers who had begun utilising IoT solutions had seen an increase in revenue of nearly 30%.

These efficiencies come from increased improvement of operations as technology specialists, engineers and skilled workers are able to spend more time on delivering innovative, quality services instead of trying to oversee processes.

Mixing IoT with 3D

The IoT is already transforming key sectors such as automotive, healthcare and the energy industry. In the manufacturing sector, the technology can play a vital role in quality control around 3D printing processes.

Consider, for example, how the IoT can enable self-governing processes to limit product damage or flag errors before they impact the production line. Just imagine how IoT can assist with signalling the need for replenishment of materials and parts to ensure a smooth and efficient supply chain.

The so-called fourth industrial revolution requires a change of mindset for businesses in the manufacturing sector. This means shifting from traditional, physical workloads and processes, and recognising the need for digital integration and smart working, enabled through the IoT.

As 3D printing becomes more sophisticated, smart machines will be able to analyse and spot errors in the production process and prevent problems before they occur. But this intelligence can only be gathered and acted upon with the right systems in place to record it. With this in mind, the IoT is the perfect partner for high quality manufacturing processes, providing insights into operations, enabling more efficient ways of working.

Manufacturers should recognise that the IoT represents a constantly-growing universe of devices and smart sensors with the capability to generate and act upon vast volumes of critical information around product processes. The ability to capture and analyse this information will also enable organisations to predict future trends and challenges that could impact operations on the factory floor.

By combining the two unique revolutions of digital manufacturing and big data, many industries are already enhancing the quality of their processes and products. The manufacturing sector cannot afford to wait for others to innovate; it must seize the moment and begin investing in these key areas now.

A brighter future

3D printing and the IoT also have the backing of major business groups and analyst houses as being a wise investment. KPMG has cited both in the top three rankings as the most disruptive technologies likely to change the way people work and live in the next two years.

The assessment is mirrored by consultants IDTechEx who forecast that the 3D printing market will reach £15 billion by 2025. Analysts IDC supported the prediction of growth in this area, forecasting that global spending on 3D printing will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 27 per cent from over £8 billion in 2015 to almost a further £16 billion in 2019.

With major analysts backing them as game-changing technologies, and with the obvious industry benefits they offer, investments in the IoT and 3D printing are clearly a wise move for organisations seeking to innovate.

The trend is best summarised by this year’s 3D Printing Electronics Conference where the organisers stated, “Combining functional elements such as electronics (sensors or switches) into a 3D‑printed product could open up new markets and new applications of products”.

Turning aspiration into reality

Companies seeking to get their products into production and shorten time to market will no longer wait for lengthy prototype production processes. The fast pace of the digital economy requires manufacturers to adapt and provide swift services reflecting this new world of connected, quality service delivery.

One of the IoT’s biggest strengths is the interconnectivity it offers between devices. With the right data available, the capabilities of 3D printing can grow further, allowing complex prototypes and different products at all stages of development to be built so much faster.

Whilst 3D printing helps offer businesses the flexibility to reimagine how product parts are designed and manufactured, it opens up further opportunities for improvement and product line expansion. The IoT can add to this by making the technology more flexible and accurate through the data it is able to collect and utilise, helping meet new demand expectations.

The rise in digital manufacturing across Europe offers a new generation of ‘makers’ the perfect opportunity to bring their ideas to market at speeds never before experienced, without compromising quality.

By harnessing the collective power of technologies such as 3D printing and the IoT, business leaders can help create a new generation of smart factories. Doing so will open the manufacturing industry to exciting new opportunities whilst simultaneously providing world class production services to businesses.

The fourth industrial revolution is coming, and it’s time for our manufacturing sector to embrace it.