Rapid manufacturing is a modern way to obtain parts and prototypes. But, as this article explains, the industry will undergo exciting changes in the near future
Manufacturing today — especially low-volume manufacturing — is very different to how it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Manufacturing technologies have changed and, perhaps more importantly, so has the overall framework in which business is conducted.
Let’s start with the hardware. Walk into a modern machine shop or factory, and lots of the equipment on show will be new. Yes, 5-axis CNC machining centers may have been around since the late 1950s, but they’ve only become machine shop staples in the last few decades. Meanwhile additive manufacturing equipment is even newer, with widespread adoption of production-ready 3D printers only taking place over the last 10 years or so.
And what about the way in which rapid manufacturing takes place? The internet has had a profound impact on the relationship between product designers, manufacturers and customers. Where once a product designer would use a local contractor for manufacturing or spend several months establishing an international supply chain, today they can order custom parts from the other side of the world with just a few clicks.
So what next? Rapid manufacturing could go in many directions, but we’re going to look at three important future trends that are set to shape on-demand rapid manufacturing and prototyping over the next few years.
Automation and Robotics
It goes without saying that the future of manufacturing will be at least partly shaped by the equipment used by the manufacturers of tomorrow. But it’s harder to say what kind of equipment that will be. Will the additive revolution continue at its current pace, with new advances in carbon fiber 3D printing changing how we make high-performance parts? Or will new technologies be applied to more traditional techniques such as casting?
One thing experts agree on is that — regardless of the manufacturing technique — automation and robotics will play a huge part in the factories of tomorrow. In February 2020, Fior Markets predicted that automated 3D printing is set to grow from a $220 million market into an $8.9 billion market by 2025. And in August 2020, a MarketsandMarkets report on industrial automation as a whole found that “installation of industrial robots is reducing human intervention in the production process, thereby reducing the cost of manufacturing with improved quality and increased production capacity.”
Automation combined with robotics will allow factories to link up processes like CNC machining, assembly and surface finishing, while minimizing downtime between jobs and allowing for overnight “lights-out” production without human supervision. And although rapid manufacturing is less concerned with assembly line robots than mass manufacturing, it will benefit from technological changes like automated part removal and improved process monitoring.
Digital Spare Parts Libraries
One of the most important functions of a rapid manufacturer or on-demand manufacturer is supplying parts at short notice — perhaps in very small quantities — to meet the demands of a customer. This function will become even more important in the coming years as major companies rethink the way they deal with inventory.
Companies that develop complex products like cars, appliances, industrial equipment, sporting goods and personal electronics often keep an inventory of spare parts. This allows them to service faulty goods during a warranty period or sell replacement parts to customers. However, keeping a large inventory requires warehouse space, inventory management and, crucially, the production of many parts that will probably never be used. (The companies simply have to manufacture them in case they are needed.)
Since many parts are now digitally designed using CAD software, a new approach is to simply keep digital copies of these files and only manufacture copies of the part when needed using a CNC machine, 3D printer or other digital manufacturing tool — either in house or via a rapid manufacturing company like RapidDirect. Researchers from Aalto University in Finland have found that “long tail products make excellent candidates for digital distribution,” with the digitalization resulting in “cost savings … related to lower warehousing and transportation costs as well as faster lead times and delivery times.”
Manufacturing as a Service
Our final future trend in rapid manufacturing is already a big part of today’s on-demand parts and prototypes landscape, but is set to expand in new and exciting ways. It is the rise to prominence of Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS) platforms, which use online systems to connect companies to manufacturers.
MaaS can be thought of as analogous to the gig economy of the modern workplace, where workers are employed for individual projects, events and operations rather than retained as traditional employees. Or like car-sharing schemes, in which users can rent shared vehicles on an as-needed basis, paying much less money than they would for their own car. MaaS is built for companies who need different kinds of manufacturing tasks completed on occasion but for whom it would not be cost-effective to invest in their own factories or equipment.
Giant MaaS platforms are becoming more and more beneficial to both manufacturers and customers. Manufacturers can attract new customers who may not have found them otherwise, while customers can get a better feel for the rapid manufacturing landscape and commence their manufacturing projects faster, getting up-front costs and removing the time required to negotiate a fee.
How RapidDirect Prepares for the Future
The RapidDirect business model is built on what we know about rapid manufacturing today, and on what we know will happen in the future.
Companies now expect to conduct their business online with minimal fuss, and that means ordering a new prototype with the ease of ordering an Uber or a takeaway. That’s why we provide an AI-based online platform to instantly analyze digital designs, and why we built an ultra-connected manufacturing network to pair customers with the most suitable on-demand manufacturers.
Upload you parts today to see how we do things.