As we come to the end of 2019, the technologies behind mass-scale digitization aren’t slowing down at all.
Within the next five years, 85% of industrial companies are expected to have implemented Industry 4.0 technologies in all key business divisions. The trend is producing practical digital applications that are only now becoming visible.
Due to a myriad of challenges, the manufacturing industry has been sluggish to adopt full-scale digitization efforts. The few leaders that have ventured to the frontier of digital transformation have laid the groundwork for the rest to follow.
The mainstream approach has been more “wait and see” than “full steam ahead.” As a result, there’s a clash between product engineers’ expectations and manufacturers’ mentalities.
Manufacturers in the past have been slow to adopt new technologies, but 2020 is likely to be a year of widespread digital adoption. The sparks have caught, and with outliers challenging the status quo, the industry is being pushed forward.
“With technology changing rapidly, manufacturers must future-proof their Industry 4.0 transformation plans or risk falling behind their competitors,” states McKinsey’s 2019 report on “Future-Proofing a Digital Manufacturing Transformation.”
Engineers are at their core open to innovation and technology. At the same, the nature of the process requires them to collaborate at multiple levels across the supply chain, with industries that haven’t always adopted the same mindset. For them, digitization of manufacturing means they can embed time, energy and money-saving efforts throughout the production process.
Here are the top three driving technologies we expect to see in 2020, and how they will empower engineers:
Online and On-Demand
With the help of digital platforms that facilitate the entire process through a network of distributed partners, online manufacturers have been experimenting with new materials and innovative business models over the past year.
By creating an ecosystem of quality manufacturers, all engineers have to do to get parts made is upload their computer-assisted designs (CADs), specifying material, surface finish, threaded holes, tolerances and lead time to the cloud. The platform will then confirm the design, and a member of the distributed network with manufacturing capabilities for the specific part will take on the project.
In addition to 3-D printing of plastics and metals, online on-demand manufacturing companies are offering suites with a variety of processes, including computer numerical control (CNC) machining, sheet metal production, injection molding and urethane casting. With the ability to access these methods of manufacturing online, on-demand part production becomes a more viable manufacturing method.
While this industry is still in its infancy, the potential it unlocks for engineers is huge. Traditionally, parts production has been hindered by long lead times to approve the quote, international transport, and the need for high-quantity minimum orders, all of which increase cost and downtime. By reducing these barriers, online on-demand manufacturing allows engineers to deliver without compromising their design.
In the coming year, we expect to see more engineers turning to on-demand manufacturing as a way to solve major pain points. It’s likely that this will lead to increased competition in this industry, as well as a consolidation of market leaders across the board. This will ultimately drive platforms to adopt new materials and draw more manufacturers into the distributed network, leading to increased choice for engineers, less downtime and lower costs.
More Partnerships, Joint Ventures
Manufacturers have found it difficult to go beyond the test phase of their digitization strategies, due to their sheer size, globalized supply chains, and a lack of clear objectives. While this is beginning to change, large organizations typically lag when it comes to adopting truly digital mindsets across their ranks. Decision-makers are aware of this, and are looking to bring in digital expertise from across their ecosystems.
“As manufacturers think about building agility into their supply chains, there is increasing realization that these efforts cannot occur in isolation,” states Deloitte’s 2020 Manufacturing Industry Outlook. “The need to cultivate a strong ecosystem is a trend that has emerged, and our research shows that it is an increasingly effective strategy for manufacturers, especially as it relates to digital momentum.”
According to Deloitte, this trend will likely play out over the coming year in two distinct ways. Firstly, smart factories — those at the forefront of the digital transition — are seeing the benefits of partnerships across their ecosystems, creating new business models and value for customers at a rate significantly higher than their competitors. Laggards who have been reluctant to move are now looking to replicate this success in their own firms. Secondly, those pushing the frontier aren’t done yet, and are likely to continue to expand their own ecosystems as a means to source capabilities they don’t have in-house.
Many market leaders are using this strategy to further their digital vision. But given the relative premium value on digital capabilities in the market, Deloitte suggests, “it may be more likely that 2020 will bring partnerships and joint ventures rather than outright acquisitions.”
Access to an external ecosystem of partners is essential to filling in the large talent and capability deficits that many manufacturers are experiencing. Thus, it’s likely we’ll see a year of partnerships between large firms and innovative digital scale-ups. Engineers will benefit from increasing focus on the user experience, internal communication, and streamlined customer journeys.
What began as a technology primarily used for prototyping has evolved into an industry in itself. 3-D printing is considered to be one of the most disruptive of all Industry 4.0 technologies. As a key element of that revolution, “3DP is evolving as a practicable alternative for both product development and conventional manufacturing,” according to a PwC white paper from late last year.
Over the past few years, the arrival of new materials has driven the industry forward, and applications are exploding. Originally, only a small selection of plastics were available to use in printing projects. Today, the addition of materials such as concrete, metal and nanoparticle ink have expanded the potential for innovation exponentially.
With the arrival of printers that are larger, faster and more intricate, engineers have the capability to build objects on a much grander scale than before. Four of the most significant 3-D prints from this year are:
- The first 3-D printed human heart, printed in Israel this year. Tel Aviv University researchers produced the vascularized engineered heart using a patient's own cells and biological materials.
- The University of Maine recently completed the largest 3-D printed boat, a two-ton, 7.5-meter cruiser, including the largest ever 3-D printed solid part.
- SpaceX’s Crew Dragon’s engine was fabricated entirely with metal 3-D printing. Designed to be the safest human space vehicle ever built, the craft has completed 16 missions to and from the International Space Station.
- The price of 3-D printing entire houses on site has dropped dramatically to between $4,000 and $10,000, providing access to safe and affordable housing to those in need.
While 3-D printing technologies for materials such as metal and concrete have been relatively expensive over the past years, a continuous stream of innovations has begun integrating them into the mainstream production process.
As printers themselves advance at a rapid pace, they’re getting closer to what industry considers the Holy Grail of 3-D printing: multi-material printing, which will allow engineers to design using a combination of filaments.
This method of printing is poised to unlock the most value of all 3-D printing techniques. Steps have been taken to introduce multi-material printing in a prototyping environment, and the technology looks set to advance into commercial use over the next year or two.
In the long run, these advances will give engineers greater design freedom, boost prototyping productivity, and make delivery more effective. The evolution in materials and the machinery itself have experts predicting that the 3-D printing industry will grow in value to upwards of $50 billion by 2026. Add to this the rapidly expanding on-demand manufacturing industry and likelihood of new partnerships across the board, and we’re starting to see 2020 as the baseline of the manufacturing industry’s fast-tracked digitization process.
Filemon Schoffer is co-founder and CCO of 3D Hubs, an online manufacturing platform.