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Industry 4.0. The fourth industrial revolution. Experts seem clear that a significant step forward is happening in factories around the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) has made its way onto the plant floor and now entire factories are becoming “smart” with an explosion of sensors and internet connected equipment. Mountains of data are beginning to flow seamlessly from machine-to-machine and from machine-to-man. As the cyber universe grows within factories, a logical addition is the ability to pull an object from the virtual world of data and create its physical counterpart on demand. Manufacturing new parts by changing a file rather than creating a costly and time-intensive mold is what makes 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, so interesting in production. Additive manufacturing has firmly planted its flag in Industry 4.0 and continues its rapid pace of development as emerging additive manufacturing technologies are finding applications across the ever-changing industrial manufacturing landscape.

Steam power and mechanization kicked off the first industrial revolution, followed by Henry Ford’s production optimization through assembly lines in the second, and the third arrived with the computer and automation revolution that drove the latter 20th-century up through the recent past. Industry 4.0 is here and its cyber-physical systems will provide the perfect environment for additive manufacturing to flourish.

The Benefits of Additive Manufacturing

Increased speed to production, manufacturing design freedom, and supply chain reductions are all massive benefits promised by additive manufacturing. Compared to other methods, additive manufacturing allows custom parts to be created in a short amount time. This rapid prototyping gives engineers the power to touch and feel their ideas simply by drafting parts via software and quickly receiving a part. Hands-on examination, testing, and tweaking of the parts can be accomplished quickly and the path to production is drastically reduced. Additive manufacturing also allows engineers more design freedom as they no longer need to design parts with the limitations of traditional manufacturing methods in mind – instead, they can truly design for function given the complex geometries achievable with additive manufacturing. Supply chains will also be affected in significant ways as the costs of storing massive amounts of inventory and global shipping are reduced and more parts are printed on demand.

What Does This Mean for Metal Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing in general has generated tremendous buzz and metal additive manufacturing is especially interesting to industrial manufacturers. Currently, metal additive manufacturing is mostly used for rapid prototyping but is starting to see end use production in some limited applications. Fortune 500 manufacturing companies like GE, Ford, and Boeing are currently using 3D printing to create new products, improve old ones, and streamline their supply chains.

Yet we have just touched the surface when it comes to using additive manufacturing to create metal parts. Metal additive manufacturing is predominantly used for prototyping today, but what will happen when companies can truly integrate the technology to produce production parts?

Additive Manufacturing in the Future

In the future, manufacturing companies will push beyond prototyping and small-scale production experiments in their factories.  They will bring additive manufacturing into the heart of their production systems and see 3D printing as a core competency.  It will be apparent that having world-class additive manufacturing capabilities is an absolute necessity if they wish to remain competitive in the marketplace.  Investment is higher than ever in additive manufacturing and the technology will continue to develop rapidly, especially with the aid of big data and artificial intelligence supporting R&D in new and previously unseen ways.

It is an exciting time for additive manufacturing as the industry forges ahead and looks to upend the traditional manufacturing paradigm.  There are many different metal additive manufacturing technologies supporting a wide variety of applications, but all are moving towards the goal of being a critical piece of the Industry 4.0 factory of the future.

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