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The fourth industrial revolution and the desire of many customers for new, individualized, high-quality products are creating brand-new opportunities for the manufacturing industry. In the face of ever-tougher competition, companies that produce with extreme flexibility efficiency – or that immediately seize on new business opportunities – will have the edge. How do they do it? One way is to take advantage of the numerous possibilities of 3D printing – as Siemens expert Karsten Heuser explains in an interview.
Mr. Heuser, along with the digital twin and the Internet of Things (IoT), studies are naming additive manufacturing as one of the emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. Do you agree with this?
Karsten Heuser: Absolutely, although I’d be careful with the term “emerging technology.” Like the digital twin and the IoT, 3D printing is already revolutionizing industrial manufacturing. So far, the technology is mainly being used in the aviation industry and medical engineering – but we’re also seeing a growing interest from the automotive industry and the gas turbine and spare-part business.
Why is that?
Heuser: Additive manufacturing is appealing to all manufacturing industries and could become a decisive competitive advantage. That’s because 3D printing not only enables extremely flexible production down to a batch size of one; it’s also extremely fast and efficient when it comes to highly complex component geometries. It also allows you to save on materials, because every product is built instead of milled or drilled. It can be used to manufacture components of any conceivable shape, even shapes that would be impossible by mechanical means. And it speeds up the entire production chain, because the complexity of the component doesn’t matter to the printer. It builds it out of nothing and doesn’t have to drill a hundred individual holes in it.
Heuser: That’s right. For our colleagues in Sweden, the process from receipt of an order to completion of the parts is almost ten times faster than in the past. And because the 3D printing process also uses up to 80 percent less energy, they also save on both materials and electricity costs, and also produce fewer emissions.
Can you give an example of innovative shapes that can be produced using additive manufacturing? And for what industries would this be profitable?
Heuser: What immediately comes to mind is the aviation industry, where they’re currently manufacturing lots of lightweight components with hollow spaces and honeycomb structures that couldn’t be produced without 3D printing. But it’s also of growing interest to the automotive industry. This brings us back to the topic of efficiency. Thanks to these ultralight components, airplanes and cars consume less fuel, their range is extended, and their carbon footprint improved – important criteria for manufacturers and ultimately for consumers as well.
So the main benefit of additively manufacturing highly complex components is savings, whether it’s materials, energy, or production steps?
Heuser: Yes and no. Efficiency is a central criterion, and for many industries it’s the most decisive. That’s why, for example, the topic is also so attractive to the spare-part business: They can save on storage costs because they can manufacture a part quickly and on demand with the press of a button. For a growing number of industries, batch size 1 also plays a role. There’s a trend toward customized manufacturing, especially in the business-to-consumer sector. Whether it’s an individually manufactured hip joint or an athletic shoe adapted to an individual’s foot and taste – additive manufacturing makes it possible and does so efficiently, cost-effectively, and quickly. But its full potential is realized in the manufacture of component geometries that can’t be created using any other technology.
Does this mean that every company needs to acquire one or even several 3D printers and the associated expertise in order to remain competitive?
Heuser: No, not necessarily. We’re currently working with users to develop an open co-creation platform that will help industrial enterprises exploit the benefits of 3D printing as quickly and as easily as possible. The platform connects designers with service providers, machine manufacturers, and users around the world and, thanks to our software, intelligently advises and guides users through all the steps in the procedure. It will make 3D printing easily accessible to all companies. Companies can also develop entirely new business models. And sharing knowledge in communities ensures the continuous development and optimization of products.
How will the platform be used in practice?
Heuser: Let’s take the fictitious example of an Italian automobile manufacturer that no longer wants to store spare parts for their old, classic car, but they also don’t want to lose the wealthy collectors market in China. They tell the platform what they need and receive recommendations for appropriate licensed companies. They choose a designer in the U.S. who makes spare parts for the classic car available to them as a 3D printing design. The automobile manufacturer purchases a license from the designer to have these parts printed 300 times over the next two years by a printer provider in China.
And how can the designer know that the model won’t simply be passed on to someone else or printed more often?
Heuser: The security of data and applications must always be guaranteed. Our extensive cyber security experience from developing MindSphere is incorporated into the platform, and software encrypts every design using digital rights management. If another party purchases the license to print a design, they’re given a key. The key is also encoded and contains precise instructions: Print this design only three times by this date on a printer using a qualified process.
What are the next steps?
Heuser: The first functions are already being implemented and will be thoroughly tested over the next few months by pilot users in the automotive and power engineering industries. In the coming months, the platform will then be made available to interested parties in all sectors of industry. As with all developments, the network offerings and functions will continue to be developed based on user requirements. So that every end user, designer, service provider, and machine manufacturer can join the network, and print with the press of a button.
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