Spotlight: Additive Manufacturing

A few years back, Gartner reported that GE is looking at integrating manufacturing at an early stage of its supply chain. As a quick primer, let us recognize that Manufacturing is about three capabilities: precision, geometric complexity, and throughput speed. A natural conclusion was that a big part of this strategy would be Additive Manufacturing. Additionally, it was concluded that Additive Manufacturing is not just 3D printing (which is adding layers of multiple materials); 4D is equally important. We all know what 3D printing is; but there is confusion about what 4D is. And before the air gets cleared up, we have 5D coming in! This is what we will examine today.

At the baseline, 4D is smart or stimulus driven manufacturing. The parts/ components built using 4D can (i) assemble themselves, (ii) repair themselves, (iii) perform multiple functions, (iv) reconfigure themselves, or even (v) change shape. It is to be noted that a 4D product can do one or more of the preceding actions. Essentially, 4D adds the fourth dimension of TIME to 3D; material/ shape/ function change as the time passes or a stimulus is created. Some applications of 4D manufacturing are self-repairing pipes, self-assembling furniture, and personalized human body parts.

5D printing is evolving now; it however is not the ?next? step after 4D (as 4D was over 3D). 5D is essentially taking the original 3D framework of X, Y, Z axes, and rotating the X and Y axis. This allows for curved layers to be printed. So 4D and 5D are used based on the need and can be used in conjunction.

GE has gone on to simplify the understanding of Additive Manufacturing by pointing out that Additive Manufacturing is different from traditional manufacturing in a very fundamental way. Additive Manufacturing works on the principle of adding material, while traditional manufacturing works on removing or moulding material. Both 4D and 5D rely on this principle of ?adding?.

As required in Additive Manufacturing, we start with a zero object and build up; it will need extensive use of CAD and/ or scanners. MIT goes on to say that the output of CAD or scanner is used to push material paste through a nozzle, OR a layer of material powder is laid out that is either melted or adhered using polymer into the desired shape (the remaining powder being simply blown away).

Additive Manufacturing technology is now leading to development/ discovery of new materials; ranging from lighter titanium to ?yet to be named? alloys.

McKinsey lists the advantages of Additive manufacturing (after 40 years of R&D) as: (i) parts that cost less or perform better (an example being Airbus developing a titanium bracket that is 30% lighter and equally strong as the traditional one; and is now approved by FAA), (ii) mass customization (Mercedes can produce parts for ANY model of ANY year), (iii) elimination of time and cost of tool-making, and (iv) reduce the need for parts inventory in the field. We can add to it the advantages of (a) shortened supply chain journey, (b) functionally graded products (e.g., high conductivity surface/ material inside, strength material outside), (c) complex geometry (hitherto purely theoretical, like one-off human body parts), and (d) small lot sizes (down to one unit per lot).

Of course, nothing is ?perfect?. McKinsey goes on to say that the issues are (i) the time it takes to produce in Additive Manufacturing (since it is a slow and painstaking process; a problem that is the number one issue of suppliers/ manufacturers of such equipment), (ii) vendor specificity of software to run these printers (as is always the case with any bleeding technology), (iii) availability of Additive Manufacturing raw material (the powder/ paste in specific form), (iv) user support from vendors (who are focused on technology rather than usage, (v) cybersecurity, and (vi) IP. And, we add to this list the fact that almost all Additive Manufacturing requires postproduction clean-up and finishing; but that is more an operational issue that can be more easily handled than the rest of them.

One must also remember that Additive Manufacturing is not just an engineering problem. It is also a design and an IT problem in terms of how it is thought through and done. And eventually, it is a marketing challenge too; try selling a new alloy or a new geometric shape.

 
Akash Jain, the author of this article, managed large IT organizations for global players like MasterCard and Reliance, as well as lean IT

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