Technology has long been considered a catalyst for innovation, driving change in the way we live, work and, most importantly, solve problems. In 2023, a year marked by ongoing supply chain issues following the COVID-19 pandemic; the rise of revolutionary tools such as AI; and the desire to make processes more efficient and productive than ever, manufacturers have adopted technological strategies to not only overcome old problems, but also create value and offerings where they did not exist before.
With a combination of growing pressure on companies to embrace sustainability throughout business practices and a push toward digitized solutions, 3D printing is rising to the top as a tool that can not only combat traditional manufacturing challenges but also expand production capabilities, increase efficiency and provide differentiated solutions across a wide range of industries.
3D printing’s impact on the manufacturing industry is growing exponentially as sustainability remains a priority for customers, AI prevails as an adaptive tool for companies to embrace rather than avoid, and “lights-out” manufacturing emerges as the ultimate goal for manufacturers.
Unlocking Sustainable Design Potential
Sustainability continues to be a major concern for consumers, so much so that it has been found to drive purchasing preferences and behaviors. Brands across industries recognize that in order to remain relevant in the market today, sustainability needs to be embraced across business sectors, leading to ambitious company-wide sustainability pledges.
However, data suggests that there is a significant disparity between the importance placed on sustainability and the steps taken to achieve it. Take, for example, the packaging industry, where a recent McKinsey survey found that out of 75% of global companies surveyed that claimed to have made sustainable packaging commitments, fewer than 30% are well-prepared to meet their environmental goals.
To achieve sustainable manufacturing authentically and effectively, products need to be designed with environmental impact in mind from the outset. This is where 3D printing shines as a remarkably versatile tool, one that can support various stages of the production process by easily integrating into existing manufacturing processes across various stages of the production line.
Once integrated, 3D printing not only reduces overall material usage and enables the execution of unique, sustainable designs, but streamlines manufacturing processes and workstreams, enhancing operational efficiency. By acting as a tool to meet both sustainability and production goals, 3D printing is opening the door to the development and adoption of digital solutions for manufacturing. However, this is just the beginning of businesses harnessing innovative technology to make progress towards a more sustainable and innovative future.
Innovation at the Intersection of AI, Data Analytics and 3D Printing
Within the past year, artificial intelligence has solidified as a tool that holds potential to transform nearly every industry, including manufacturing—one that still relies heavily on tools and practices developed over a decade ago. AI adoption is increasing at an astonishing rate, developing to become more sophisticated and proficient at tackling challenges and enabling capabilities that have been impossible to achieve before.
Additive manufacturing is an industry that will greatly benefit from increased AI use, especially as it pertains to design. Developing designs that are compatible for 3D printers is a labor-intensive and specialized practice, meaning that the number of product designers equipped with this skill cannot keep pace with the demand for this skill as 3D printing adoption continues to grow.
However, with AI, models such as text-to-3D, text-to-texture and optimal body fitment will allow those without design expertise to become proficient in designing for 3D manufacturing, allowing hyper-personalized and sustainable 3D printing applications to be brought to market faster and easier than ever. This is particularly valuable for industries such as healthcare and sporting goods, where customization is essential to address consumer and patient needs.
In addition to optimizing the design process with additive manufacturing, AI and other digital tools can be integrated with other physics simulations to analyze the printing landscape, predict outcomes and optimize the printing process without the need for physical printing to take place, ultimately enhancing product control and decreasing errors and product variations.
When used together, AI and 3D printing provide unprecedented results in terms of efficiency and process optimization, increasing additive manufacturing’s competitiveness over traditional manufacturing processes such as injection mold manufacturing.
Scalable 3D Manufacturing Powered by Digital and Physical Automation
As the benefits associated with 3D printing gain traction with businesses across sectors, additive manufacturing is becoming increasingly popular. However, to experience all that additive manufacturing has to offer, adopters must successfully navigate increasingly complex digital workflows while simultaneously maintaining high product output and reducing overall production costs.
To overcome these challenges, digital tools and workflows need to be implemented wherever possible across the production line. Digital twins (or virtual representations of 3D printers that account for their operational capabilities, process monitoring and adjusting printer performance), end-to-end design and process data management are key enablers to accomplish this. Not only does this boost uptime, but the additive manufacturing process becomes more efficient without the cost of additional labor.
With automation becoming a priority for those utilizing 3D printing at scale, more steps along the production line will become independent from human intervention, allowing production to carry on into traditionally costly night and weekend shifts. As the total cost of ownership of 3D printing solutions is lowered, new verticals can be expected to enter the 3D printing market, bringing us one step closer to lights-out factories.
To date, 3D printing technology has made great strides in how it allows manufacturers to achieve more sustainable production processes and outcomes, works in tandem with other digital tools like AI, and increases the efficiency and production yields of existing additive manufacturing solutions. Looking ahead to 2024, we can expect more industries—ranging from healthcare to footwear to sporting goods and beyond—to experience the benefits of additive manufacturing via innovative and markedly different, bespoke solutions.
This article was submitted by Arvind Rangarajan, global head of Software and Data, HP Personalization and 3D Printing.