Additive manufacturing (AM) is the industrial name for 3D printing and it is perhaps one of the most interesting technologies associated with Industry 4.0, aside from IoT, AI/ML, AR, VR, Cloud, Robotics and Blockchain. Additive manufacturing as the name suggests creates a product or part by adding layer upon layer of material, using a design file and a 3-D printing device, which translates the design into actual product. Just like most of the foundational technologies associated with Industry 4.0, 3D printing or additive manufacturing has been around since 1984, when stereolithography was developed as a means of rapidly creating prototypes and to the scale models of actual product for comparison and design related changes/analysis. During the 1990’s, additive manufacturing was used for tooling and creating molds, progressing to the present day when it’s used to manufacture components/parts or even entire products, which are fully functional.

Today, additive manufacturing is being used for manufacturing everything ranging from aircraft and automobile parts/products, to medical devices and even biomedical components. The applications of additive manufacturing in conventional manufacturing are many and as Industry 4.0 sees a surge in adoption, so will the use of additive manufacturing, along with hybrid manufacturing value chain models which combine both traditional manufacturing and incorporate additive manufacturing, moving towards a highly digitized, integrated, agile and resilient ecosystem.

‘These engineers 3D printed a mini jet engine, then took it to 33,000 RPM’

Mike Keller – GE Reports

As a success story for additive manufacturing, companies which manufacture highly customized, personalized products are adopting additive manufacturing as their main manufacturing methodology. They are completely transforming their existing process to accommodate the new technology, which is leading not only to better business results for them but faster innovation and better customer service than ever before. One example is the entire hearing aid manufacturing industry, where they switched their manufacturing from traditional to additive.

Additive Manufacturing Techniques

There are seven different types of additive manufacturing techniques, which use a variety of material, from metallic powders, to polymers and from gels to foams, to create products or parts, directly from a CAD (computer aided design) file or a 3D printing design software file to an actual and tangible entity.

Most additive manufacturing techniques utilize thermal energy to add layers of material and create the requisite design. Powder Bed Fusion utilizes heat to melt and join powders; it is quite popular in industrial applications. Material Extrusion utilizes a nozzle to deposit heated polymers to form requisite shapes and is perhaps the most commonly known 3D printing application.

Depending on the industry and application, one method of additive manufacturing might be more preferable than the other. Irrespective of the technique suitable to a given manufacturing practice or industry, the allure which is driving more and more manufacturers to look at 3D printing as an alternative or to support existing manufacturing is the fact that 3D printed parts can be designed many times before printing the actual product or part. For small and customized manufacturing runs, 3D printing is perhaps far more economical than traditional manufacturing.

The rapid growth of 3D printing can be attributed to the fact that the technology is now commercially more accessible than ever, more affordable and the types of raw materials which can be used for building products have increased drastically. But the biggest driver for the inclusion of additive manufacturing in the traditional manufacturing value chain is the same as the one driving Industry 4.0 as a whole: the need to be able to either fully or partially customize traditional product offerings, at comparable or lower cost, while delivering products manufactured rapidly and most efficiently, meeting or exceeding quality expectations. This need for mass or substantial customization, while being agile, more energy and material efficient, doing things faster and reducing inventory, being more demand driven and above all being more profitable is what makes additive manufacturing an essential component of the Industry 4.0 landscape.

Challenges adopting Additive Manufacturing

While it is evident that the appeal of additive manufacturing is absolutely clear and apparent, there are important aspects to be considered before adopting. Challenges from a software perspective are one aspect: can the current IT infrastructure accommodate additive manufacturing seamlessly? Another consideration is from a quality and compliance standpoint. How does one ensure that additive manufacturing can be added to the existing manufacturing environment in such a way that the new hybrid process is well managed and executed properly? How does one ensure that quality management and compliance norms are adhered to? And above all, how does the management of the overall process remain smooth, with anticipated results verified in comparison with actual business metrics?

Most AM software providers accommodate in their application’s functionality the design of different components and take into consideration available material and printer types. They may or may not provide process/product simulation within the same software, which would allow designers and process owners to review various aspects of a designed product against real-world metrics, which might determine whether or not a designed part/product is actually feasible for production (or in this case, printing).

Considering that design and simulation are both provided by the AM software manufacturer, from an actual process management standpoint and considering that a large manufacturer may incorporate hundreds of 3D printers in the actual manufacturing process, the ability to design and simulate a viable product or part still must consider the hardware and software infrastructure required to effectively execute additive manufacturing.

Seamless MES communication is a must

It is probable that a MES will already exist in companies that want to implement Additive Manufacturing, or that the company is implementing its first ‘modern’ MES as part of its digital transformation efforts. It is crucial that the MES application deployed has the capability of integrating, monitoring and analyzing the events associated with additive manufacturing in order to gain the full benefits of both technologies.

Let’s understand why. Typically a modern Industry 4.0-ready MES platform is the application which orchestrates a given manufacturing process, which means right from scheduling of orders, to managing WIP, to recording and reporting quality parameters. An Industry 4.0-ready MES triggers real-time actions through automation or personnel, all happening through a core MES. This implies that irrespective of whether a single 3D printer is to be added into the existing process or hundreds, it is imperative that the MES is able to communicate and integrate with the AM software and also be able to communicate to the 2-D printer/s both to relay jobs and to record metrics. From a process and quality management perspective, this requires seamless MES communication to the devices on the network. Unless the MES is capable of communicating with and controlling the 3D printers, their adoption will be far from seamless in any manufacturing line.

Manufacturers must realize that MES deployment is the backbone of Industry 4.0 in their value chain, and perhaps the determining factor of whether or not their efforts in successfully achieving a digital transformation will bear fruit.

It is the MES and its extended ‘edge’ communications which fully integrates the factory to provide both responsiveness and seamless interaction. Edge devices, such as IIoT, collects process information, and through integration with enterprise level and automation level IT applications, introduces agility and control. The same application allows for AI/ML to deploy and provide much needed process and business intelligence; and through AR and VR, ensure that regular workers transform into knowledge workers doing their jobs more efficiently with enhanced guidance and information.

The same application controls the process robotics and automation, delivering unforeseen efficiency gains and insight. The inclusion of additive manufacturing is no exception; the MES needs to be ready for the changes which it brings, not just in the way parts are made or customizations happen, but the changes brought to the overall manufacturing landscape of the organization. The MES needs a modern, integrated platform to ensure that the materials used in 3D printing are compliant with set norms, that the parts manufactured meet specification criterion set, that orders in a hybrid manufacturing are routed such that both traditional and 3D printer lines are used optimally, and that all requisite parameters needed to execute a job and post-execution to verify acceptability of a product/part are well documented and communicated. Unless this level of control and oversight exists, the use of 3D printing might not deliver the value anticipated by the business leaders.

For more information on MES and Additive Manufacturing, our blog post, 3D Printing and the Industry 4.0, provides additional insights.