Is this the end of the factory?

The Economist carried a leader earlier this year entitled 'Print me a Stradivarius – how a new manufacturing technology will change the world'. The violin in question is indeed impressive – and made using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) by German company EOS – one of the leaders in the field of 'Additive Manufacture' (AM).

Whether you call it AM, 3D printing or digital manufacture, the ability to make parts using a range of additive processes, rather than the 'subtractive' ones used in conventional industry (machining, etc) has certainly seized some people's imagination. The Economist talked of 'resetting the economics of manufacture' and 'getting rid of production lines'.

But, wait a minute, won't parts made using AM still need to be assembled? Won't they still need to be painted, tested, and put in packaging? Well, yes. And what about the costs?

The article quoted a number of people who state that AM processes are now competitive with injection moulding in runs of 1000. This is true, but only if you carefully select the part you are talking about – preferably a small one. Most AM processes have a build chamber which incurs a high fixed cost in terms of energy and time, if not material. The smaller the parts, the lower the individual costs. For most parts larger than a hearing aid, the cost of producing it using AM is far higher than conventional processes, particularly if you include finishing and painting.

This not to question the value of AM – it is a genuinely exciting development, but the hype is getting out of control. The reality is that AM is one of a number of new production processes – some radical, and some based on traditional methods – that offer a whole range of new tools for 21st Century manufacturing. In the meantime, 3D printing offers an increasingly cost-effective method of testing design ideas and building prototypes, which is great for designers and engineers.
But the end of the factory? Not for a while yet.

Mike Ayre, Crucible Industrial Design

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