Last week we were happily invited along to the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing International Conference, held in Nottingham.
Attended by some of the great and good in this niche industry, everything was clearly aimed at the next step in the technology’s evolution, from prototyping to building the real thing.
New technologies, business models and limiting factors were all addressed, and although the face of manufacturing could change in less than a decade, there were equally as many reasons why it might take much longer.
Amongst the most exciting was the new technology from Malibu IQ, developing 3D printing without need for layers to produce a large micro-lattice structure in under 30 seconds.
In simple terms, a vat of photopolymer resin is masked off by a sheet with thousands of pin pricks. Next, a blast of collimated (parallel light beam) UV light is blasted through this. The immediate curing in the resin acts as a guide for the light, self propagating the build structure through the vat of resin.
The resulting speed benefits of this mean that it is closer to the Star Trek image of 3D printing than ever before.
Malibu IQ is a research department co-funded by Boeing and General Motors, adding to the excitement of potential commercial developments.
Adding to this wave of so-close-you-can-touch-it futurism was Paul Brody, IBM’s global leader for electronics.
The team from IBM, along with UK-based 3D printing research agency Econolyst (Dr Phil Reeves gave a great talk at DEVELOP3D Live about all this), Sourcemap and a few other partners has spent the last year researching current manufacturing and supply chain methods, and how future technology will impact this.
When a company of IBM’s stature is willing to speak up about such drastic changes that it forsees in the next five to 10 years, it makes an entire room listen.
Current supply chains have evolved globally from Henry Ford’s production lines.
Economies of scale – bigger, better plants with more cheap labour; a complex, multi-tier supply chain, based upon a low-cost global supply of materials.
Brody is predicting that the speed with which three current technologies are moving will change this completely:
1) 3D printing
2) Intelligent robotics
3) Open source hardware
The three form the basis for IBM’s Software Defined Supply Chain.
3D printing is elastic – it can be built almost anywhere and in a minute fraction of the quantities currently needed to make profit.
The cost of smart robots has dropped by 90 per cent in the last 7 years allne, soon we will have low-cost, non-stop labour anywhere in the world.
Allowing more people to access hardware and software will give greater freedoms in both design and manufacture – allowing for more customisation and freedoms.
The team took apart a range of different products for assembly step-by-step analysis and mapped the supply chain modelling, looking at cost, scale and CO2 emission.
10 years from now, using the Software Defined Supply Chain process, these technologies can produce an average 23 per cent unit cost benefit and reduce barriers to enter manufacturing by an astounding 90 per cent.
This will see global supply reducing down a to national level, then regional, and eventually down to manufacturing in every city.
However 70 per cent of companies are unprepared, carrying on with current plans that under this research are obsolete(!).
The future is not without fault – this technology is energy intensive, meaning 3D printing and robotics companies are going to have to develop less thirsty machines.
The bigger problems that might scupper this revelatory near-future are the problems facing the current crop of manufacturers using 3D printing.
Chris Sutcliffe, from the University of Liverpool, and his company Fusion Implants has uncovered untold complications.
Making medical implants they found the biggest problems transpired from (in many respects similar) bacteria and lawyers.
Having developed technology for laser sintering various joints, applicable software, advanced materials and even microscopic porous node shapes for implantable devices, the company was disbanded by seemingly common issues.
A lack of common practise for cleaning up parts (as much as tissue loves attaching to porous 3D printed implant parts, bacteria loves hiding in it), and the fact that this is still a developing technology saw legal teams disband the medical operation that was under university control.
The new company Fusion Implants is targeting the veterinary market, which is still very profitable despite not being as vast as the £2.4bn dental market.
The problems are still that machines are not ‘production’ machines as we know, and will always need some learning from all involved in using them.
Furthermore, it’s not the materials and processes that needs the biggest revolution, its persuading the legal side of things to change.
Elsewhere at the event there was much more going on, more than enough to make the cost of the ticket worthwhile – talks from the US’s NAMII body (Obama’s promo for 3D printing), the evolution of ink jet technology to enable future production (organiser of the event, Nottingham University’s, big research topic), and making the 90 per cent of dormant domestic 3D printers into a viable manufacturing hub (3D Hubs).
Despite all the talk of near-future change and amazing things being done at present, things seem to be moving slowly on the surface.
With the mass of interest already at its peak this is clearly the time for this niche industry to close ranks at events such as this to aid its change into an important part of the everyday:
Nobody ever mentioned that the future would be cancelled by the lawyers. Getting them to an event like this might help change a few minds.