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The dueling promise of 3-D printing


Generations of warehouse owners have dealt with faulty machinery by identifying the malfunctioning piece, contacting its manufacturer to send them a replacement, then waiting while that piece (and many other identical pieces) ships to another closer warehouse. From there, it is delivered individually back to the warehouse owner. Skip ahead a decade or two from now and the manufacturing landscape will almost certainly not function this way. It’s a small reality now, as we still live in a mass production-led world, but it won’t be long before manufacturing enters a radio-like transition into full personalization. Those inside the material handling industry have thus far not felt the tug of urgency from additive manufacturing (AM). All signs point to a future in which such manufacturing will play a significantly larger part in the industry’s outlook. Until that point, 10-15 years from now, it’s up to warehouse owners, logistics businesses and manufacturers to decide how they want to proceed.

By the mid-1980s – in lock step with the development of personal computers and industrial lasers – rapid prototyping revolutionized manufacturing despite never having produced anything customers would ever see.

The quick and dirty three-dimensional plastic facsimiles of larger, more intricate products served only as disposable models; It was a tactile artist’s rendering. If the blitzkrieg of additive manufacturing does end up hitting the industry, the result will not be meek facsimiles of the real thing, but of the products themselves. The concept of 3-D printing is simple: engineer building materials down to their finest powder-like state, then use liquid binding, laser sintering or photopolymers to fuse the filament layer-by-layer into a software-designed three-dimensional object.

If the concept is simple, the ramifications across multiple industries are not. Additive manufacturing is, by most estimates, at least a decade or two away from rebooting the industry completely – which is either an optimistic look or a pessimistic one depending on what side of the technology you’re on. Those bullish on additive manufacturing believe it will be deployed in tandem with mass production and used to build geometrically complex, personalized, multi-material pieces on a significantly smaller scale. Already AM has a market presence as corporations like Siemens and Boeing use the technologies for the manufacture or laser sintered hearing aid shells, molds for clear braces and replacement parts for F-18 jets. It is a limited list, but like large paws on a puppy, it’s a harbinger for how big this beast can get. AM produces mostly prototypes or add-on parts, but it is only a matter of time before the process will be able to produce the entire part.

The trajectory of 3-D printing suggests that the manufacturing process will eventually create replacement parts for weapon systems, marine products and land and air vehicles. From there, not only will new products be made that were previously thought to be impractical because of risk or manufacturability, but also new methods of production and dissemination will be made available, too. Many companies will discover that additive manufacturing can serve as a strategic bridge between a finished design and production tooling, allowing them to deliver products to customers quicker than before. Until the cost-per-unit – and in many cases, the speed with which these pieces are manufactured – can compete regularly with mass production, there is little risk of rapid manufacturing eclipsing traditional methods. Still, discounting the new development because customers cannot yet buy it at Wal-Mart is like ignoring the tornado until it gets closer to the house.

Kinko’s was making copies and printing pages on the University of Southern California campus 25 years before it became the leading retail copier, merged with FedEx, and changed business presentation capabilities forever. Personal computers existed in the 1940s but weren’t common in the average home until 1982 and then weren’t the backbone of commerce until a generation after that. In these cases, the businesses willing to assimilate these empowering technologies thrived. Those that kept them at arms length did not.

Terry Wohlers, whose research firm specializes in AM growth, predicts that 30 percent of all items printed in three dimensions will be used as final products by 2020 – quadruple the percentage produced in 2010. By the time today’s newborns reach fifth grade, 3-D printing will be a $5.2 billion-per-year technology. Industry leaders like John Braun of Alchemy Models Incorporated believe the eventual endpoint for additive manufacturing will involve building with natural materials that have thus far been unusable. As part of a response to a presentation given to a symposium of experts in 2008, Braun called to mind the construction of a space station on the moon using the surface’s dust particles sintered together. For the cost of a manned flight to the moon, a 3-D printer and some snacks, Braun posits that manufacturing could begin without the hefty cost of transporting building materials. The reality of such an endeavor remains largely in the imagination of a distinct minority, but scaling the idea down to a more regional level in the next couple decades will raise fewer eyebrows. Imagine rebuilding in impoverished nations like Haiti or Rwanda if additive manufacturing could transform sand and dust into buildable filaments like they’ve begun doing with glass, plastics and certain metals. Now imagine the adaptation construction, storage and transportation companies would have to go through if their shipping materials were already on-site?

The most historically successful way to proceed at the precipice of shifting trends for manufacturers, freight companies and storage providers has been to absorb it into their business model or plan to compete beside it. The question for freight companies, who primarily handle each step within the supply chain, are what to do when raw materials and polished parts are no longer transported, but downloaded. What will be held inside storage warehouses when mass production is no longer necessary? And, what do manufacturers make if the consumers make their own products? The printers and the filament used for additive manufacturing would still be packaged and shipped globally, but differences between shipping boxes of metal filament and billets of raw material are as evident as the differences between a quart of milk and the cow it came from.

Quality Goes Up, Cost Goes Down
Accessibility and personalization of products have been the two most highly leveraged attributes of additive manufacturing in the technology’s early stages. Forcing mass production to give a little elbow room to personal manufacturing for the first time in more than a century will ultimately make 3-D printing a known commodity around the world. That development is merely a whisper now, but there is a growing crescendo of certainty that includes the ability to put the tools in immediate proximity to the customer instead of distant manufacturing facilities. Also included is the belief that AM development would increase fuel and carbon emission efficiency due to lighter parts and create a more efficient use of raw materials and manufacturing processes. Most machines are designed for speed and for specific part sizes. To achieve the first two, each part usually gets saddled with additional materials necessary for the machine to function. Without the constraints of bulky machine parts, additive manufacturing is able to design a lighter product with fewer redundant materials. Printers can also build 24 hours a day while being left unattended and are capable of producing smaller metal components in a matter of hours or days as compared to the traditional days or weeks it usually takes to produce similar sized metal parts. The concept of building an additive manufacturing machine that can make other AM machines is in early stages of development, but could provide manufacturers and storage owners huge incentives down the line if retooling each machine remains easy in the face of new growth.

The Difference Between Awareness and Trust
The industry’s lethargic attitude toward innovation investments is also what threatens the profitability of each business. For the next 10-20 years, the construction, manufacturing, logistics and storage industries will all find themselves in a game of chicken with each other determining whether to embrace change and innovation or resist both and risk being massively behind the times. Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, remarked on the fragmented nature of the construction industry as being affected primarily by its use of primitive machinery.

“The low cost and the low degree of sophistication of such tools allow any small company to engage in construction activities,” Khoshnevis said. ”Companies face fierce competition to survive because they lack economically viable alternatives, and building code compliance allows little room for experimentation or innovation in construction technologies.”

Additive manufacturing technologies, in theory, would allow wiggle room both economically and physically. Without the need for production tooling, the flexibility and reconfigurability of any given system means that the same machine can be used for the manufacturing of different components of the same piece instead of one piece per machine. This opens up the potential for localized production, especially in low volumes. With increases in speed and lower cost systems and materials, it is possible 3-D printing would bring manufacturing back to high-wage economies, especially in the interim when additive manufacturing is still mostly owned by the material handling industry, before private persons take manufacturing into their own hands.

Just a Fad
The inability to guarantee material properties for any given process is perhaps additive manufacturing’s biggest roadblock going forward. AM products have been refined only to the point that they closely resemble mass-produced bolt-and-weld productions. Ultimately, however, they don’t usually meet the mechanical properties required to comply with specific structural needs. Would you board a cross-country flight on a plane constructed of parts only closely resembling those of other planes? Not likely.

Rex Brown, principal engineer for Honeywell, said in 2009 that he believes rapid manufacturing’s best usage will fall short of competing with manufacturing processes demanding strict build requirements. There is still a long way to go before the masses are convinced of the technological capabilities of 3-D printing. Not only will such processes require massive testing and provability, but convenience will have to come into play. Few would label today’s material handling environment convenient in the larger context; massive machines in empty storage spaces spread out over great distances is the norm and will continue being the norm until additive manufacturing or some other innovative technology can compress and articulate CAD transfers in the average on-site facility or business office. The compression necessity and security involved in the wireless transfer of CAD drawings to database drawing machines just isn’t where it needs to be. Even if it were, it is less likely that CAD programs will become user-friendly enough for the average person to utilize it with the ease of a personal printer, for example.

The cost of these machines is another obstacle separating the material handling industry from additive manufacturing, especially when considering the limited capability those expensive machines posses. The prices of the machines capable of printing even passable industrial objects (they range from $8,000 to well over $500,000) are expensive enough to limit most educational facilities from adopting the technology – an important step in any technological advancement. There are some machines that cost only a couple hundred dollars, but the capabilities of those machines are limited to primarily plastic molds of small objects. Much like personal printers, 3D printers aren’t nearly as expensive over its lifetime as the ink they use. The ink, in this case, is the limited array of powder filaments. Stainless steel, glass, silver and a variety of plastics are available, but until the materials expand, additive manufacturing won’t touch mass production. It would be like asking people to print documents without using black or blue ink.

Speed is always an issue. Dr. Neil Hopkinson heads a team from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom that has invented a method of additive printing that uses infrared absorbing filament and infrared heating to fuse each layer of filament together. With this process, his team is able to produce 1,000 small plastic pieces (such as snowboard buckles) in each production run. Hopkinson also predicts this number will increase by 10 or even 100 in the next five years. Richard Hague, Hopkinson’s colleague at Loughborough, sees integration – not speed – as the technology’s ultimate challenge. “Regardless of how reconfigurable and flexible an additive manufacturing supply chain may be,” Hague wrote in a 2009 white paper on the subject, “the AM component will still have to sit somewhere within a conventional business configuration.” The belief in this instance being that possessing the tools is not enough, possessing the ability to use them is equally important. This is the beam of hope the brightest minds of the material handling industry would do well to focus on going forward.

Assuming the printers adapt to the time demands a mass producing world has made commonplace – and in some sectors, like small furniture and light clothing, it already has – manufacturing plants and storage facilities can still offer something these printers never will: the production expertise and backlog of product to provide end-users their goods in a quicker and more assured pace. Establishing solutions and adopting additive manufacturing early will go a long way in staving off the threat, as would the opportunity for production companies or storage facilities to incorporate additive manufacturing into the maintenance of their products. Perhaps a portion of a corporation’s warranty may include the necessary design software to print replacement parts, with localized technicians to assist with the application. Even after the technology is available, customers will still want and need assistance applying it to their lives.

One Piece at a Time
Ultimately, if manufacturing and storage are going to adapt to customizable 3-D printing, their rules are going to have to change. If mass production loses ground to AM processes, customer service will play a larger role in material handling. Globalized commerce, in turn, will bear ample fruit in some sectors and dry to dust in others. Shipping will be replaced by downloading and physical storage will give way to cloud-based storage online. Businesses open to adapting to these changes can thrive. The quicker storage facilities adapt cloud storage options into their normal capabilities, the more attractive a turn-key service they will be able to offer. Such is the case with logistics companies; shipments of large heavy quantities will always be necessary, just not as commonplace. What will be necessary is the addition of smaller, more microcosmic logistical operations traveling shorter distances and offering more personalized solutions to end users. A logistics company might lose some of its necessity amid a decline in freight shipments, but the opportunity to organize, transfer and stow will, in some capacity, almost certainly remain intact. No matter the technology, people still exist and those people still require materials that make their lives function. What 3-D printing offers is a change in method, not need. Businesses bogged down by the idea that their clients no longer need their services will disappear.

Eventually, additive manufacturing will find a footing within production industries. The trick for storage facility owners, manufacturers and anyone within the logistics industry will be to figure out a way to integrate 3-D printing into their business before it becomes a threat.