We return again to the growing importance of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, as its impact upon our country’s industrial base continues to expand.
3-D printing will prove to be one of those “manufacturing revolutions” that, like others before, take time to be transformed – and transformational. As The Economist notes in a 2017) article on the matter, way back in 1733 a fellow by the name of John Kay, a British weaver, invented the “flying shuttle” which allowed for the production of wider pieces of cloth than previously possible. Because it could be mechanized, it was one of those innovations that displaced workers and gradually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.
In the early 1900s Ransom Olds came up with the idea of an assembly line to speed up production of the Olds Curved Dash – a decade ahead of Henry Ford.
Fast forward to the 1980s and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System had a similarly profound effect on modern automotive production, with its “curious methods,” (to quote The Economist), like just-in-time parts delivery and continuous material flow procedures that presaged today’s lean thinking.
In 1983, a fellow named Chuck Hull invented something called stereo lithography. He’s the founder of 3D Systems, a producer of 3D printers. We’ve written of these machines’ capabilities before. They allow a product to be designed CAD-like on a computer screen, and then “printed” as solid objects by building up successive layers of material. Hull’s invention is just one of many approaches to additive manufacturing.
3D print technology has become popular for producing one-off prototypes since users can tweak their software to create new prototypes, rather than fuss with expensive tooling on the shop floor. 3D printing has proven great at making lightweight, complex shapes in high-value products like planes and autos. It’s worth noting that GE has spent $1.5 billion on the technology to make jet parts.
To date, 3D printing has been ideal for low-volume production, but less for high-volume, where the technology has been deemed too slow to compete at higher volumes. Except that’s going to change too.
Recently, shoe manufacturer Adidas has started to use a form of 3D printing called “digital light synthesis” to produce shoe soles, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer, note the authors. Adidas plans to use the technology in two highly-automated new factories to bring a million pairs of shoes to market annually. So much for low-volume production.
Metal printing is also being affected. A new technique called “bound-metal deposition” can build metal objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches per hour, compared to the 1 or 2 cubic inches using a typical laser-based metal printer today.
The rise of this technology is only a matter of time. With increasing wage pressures even in China, the demand from factories is already there. 3D printing is spreading to production lines around the world. As global supply chains shorten, additive printing a la 3D will be used to customize and tailor a range of products to local tastes and customer demands. And Mr. Hull and others like him are likely to get a lot better known in the not too distant future.