3D Printing: Industrial Revolution Catalyst

August 5th, 2013 by

By Bryan Levey
VP Engineering

In a recent front-page article headlined “A Revolution in the Making”, Wall Street Journal writer John Koten heralds a New Industrial Revolution, characterized by ideas and technologies that are redefining manufacturing.  Massive armies of low-skilled workers toiling in large, dirty factories will be supplanted by skilled engineers and designers enabling more customized, more nimble manufacturing.

One of the revolution’s primary catalysts is 3D manufacturing – also called additive manufacturing – which has generated a lot of well-deserved media buzz recently.  3D manufacturing is both highly efficient and cost effective, providing extraordinary flexibility in fabricating things of all shapes and sizes, from sneakers to machines. Through detailed digital models, it’s possible to manufacture 3D objects in far fewer pieces, greatly streamlining the manufacturing process. For example, last year Nike began making the Flyknit, its first mass-produced sneaker, with the new approach and reports up to 80% less waste in manufacturing.

Late-night talk show host and car aficionado Jay Leno might seem an unlikely player in this 3D industrial revolution.  In order to keep his more than 200 cars and motorcycles, some dating back to the early 1900’s, in driving condition, Leno used to search far and wide for specialized pieces for his fleet.  Today with a specialized scanner and an industrial-grade 3-D printer, he can manufacture just about any arcane part he needs, saving both time and money.

At its most sophisticated, additive manufacturing allows machines to make other machines.  In England, a 3D printer has been able to replicate itself.  But additive manufacturing is only one piece of the next-generation manufacturing puzzle and although the Journal article centers on this burgeoning technology, it seems like all brawn and no brain.  Make a sneaker, yes…make a car part, yes…make an artificial limb, yes…make a human organ, possibly, but what will make these “items” think, move, communicate, or work together?

Yes, 3D is surely a linchpin, but the New Industrial Revolution also includes other drivers – more affordable electronic sensors, the acceptance of industry standard protocols (e.g. EtherCAT or AVB), and the availability of off-the-shelf operating systems and software to give brains to the brawn (e.g. Windows with IntervalZero’s RTX/RTX64 real-time software).

With all these technology breakthroughs available today, the only piece left is the imagination and creativity of the designer/developer.

How far off are we from a world where a budding entrepreneur in his garage (albeit a large garage) could use the above mentioned pieces to create the production line for a personal jetpack, holographic TV, or automated surgical machine for removing tumors? That will be the true culmination of the next Industrial Revolution.

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