3D printing has already revolutionized production in manufacturing—by creating new processes, cutting down on waste and much more. What will the next decade bring? Engineering expert Dr. Thomas R. Kurfess gave his forecast at a recent virtual session hosted by the Manufacturing Leadership Council, as part of its Manufacturing in 2030 project. The MLC is the digital transformation arm of the NAM.
The next eight years: A leader in the field, Kurfess is a member of the MLC Board of Governors. He also is the HUSCO Ramirez Distinguished Chair in Fluid Power and Motion Control for the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.
He predicts that the combination of 3D printing with other technologies, backed by venture capital investments, will prove transformative:
- “The machines are great,” as he put it, “but if you don’t have the CAD [computer-aided design] and CAM [computer-aided manufacturing] systems to make use of the machines, then what are you going to do?”
- Quality control using AI, machine learning and 3D inspection will be crucial, he added. As companies deploy 3D printing more widely, AI will be used to interpret data from one facility or machine and then apply it enterprise-wide in real time.
Pros and cons: Kurfess summarized the current state of additive manufacturing—both the advantages and disadvantages.
- On the plus side, this technology produces less material waste. It also allows greater geometrical freedom (since you can 3-D print complex pieces of any shape) and use of a wider range of materials.
- However, the current technology also suffers from longer cycle times and poor surface finishes.
Preparing the workforce: What can companies do to maximize the advantages? “One of the most important things here in terms of realizing this vision [of the expansion of additive manufacturing] . . . is to make sure we train our people,” Kurfess said.
- “We’ve got to support that ecosystem to make sure the small and medium enterprises, which really represent the middle class and great jobs, [are] still there in 2030 supporting all of these different operations.”
The last word: “You’re not going to hit the print button and parts are going to pop out. There is going to be processing and a whole lot more that has to be done,” Dr. Kurfess advised. “It’s not the silver bullet, but what it will be is more integrated into [traditional] manufacturing.”