Efficient and flexible just-in-time production
These days the term Industry 4.0 is used excessively in all sectors of industry, from the automotive market to plant production and medicine. It is also thrown into conversation about additive manufactoring technology, or so-called 3D printing. But what exactly is Industry 4.0? What does the 4.0 stand for and what is it a reference to? Does it have anything to do with additive manufacturing? Philipp Renner, who works at Apium Additive Technologies GmbH in Karlsruhe, is willing to provide a definition.
The term Industry 4.0 uses the number to indicate that it’s the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it describes solutions whereby conventional production technology is connected to smart systems and digital networks. The aim of connecting systems to one another is to pull together the entire process of product creation by linking individual stages of the value chain – mainly by using computer systems and modern communication technology to form direct links.
Industry 4.0 is about smart machines that make it possible for all elements of production – people, machines, materials, and the end product itself – to communicate with one another by using cyber-physical systems. By connecting things, a kind of decentralized entity is created, a value creation network capable of gathering data, processing it, storing it in a central location (in the so-called cloud), and then making the best possible use of this data at all stages of production. Digitizing facts and the way they are stored in the cloud allows people involved in this process to access the information from anywhere, thus also making it easy and quick for people to exchange data between different companies, locations, and clients.
This helps significantly enhance efficiency and flexibility. Machines can react quickly to changes in product preferences, and as a result it becomes possible for companies to provide end customers with personalized products in real time. This is beneficial for both parties because it raises customer satisfaction and maximizes revenues for the company.
The advantages offered by becoming more flexible, personalizing products, and making individual adaptations to production requirements are also gained with 3D printing. One of the most valuable benefits of this format of digital technology is that it dovetails seamlessly with the processes of Industry 4.0. Ordering information can be captured during production, flowing into product design during the next stage before the optimal size and dimensions of the object being produced are checked, which are put to use by defining which machine to allocate a product to. Then comes quality management. Finished orders are then re-checked and logs are forwarded to technical specialists and managers. Not only does this mean the decision-makers in production can be kept informed, even customers receive notification of the status, quality, and production processes of their end products. This extends to the now normal options given to customers to track orders or check their delivery status, moving information upstream into production so clients can see how far into the production process their product is.
A further advantage of dovetailing digital technology with additive manufactoring technology is that things can be made in real time. With the right planning software, production materials can be sorted and prioritized, making it possible to offer just-in-time and just-in-sequence production and thus make significant savings in terms of warehousing and logistics. By simplifying data exchange with companies and other sites involved in the value chain, it becomes easier to react to changes and adjust production accordingly. With additive manufacturing, it is also possible to arrange 3D printers to offer ultimate flexibility so a printer that has just finished making a pair of spectacle frames can immediately get on with making a housing for a smartphone. This high degree of flexibility allows manufacturers to make dynamic adjustments to schedules and under such circumstances, it should not be a major production challenge introducing new product variants.
Also, companies can continuously gather data and this allows people in the sales field to go back through data in real time and find important information, such as the value of a contract, or review data from previous production runs. This can be compared to the products or service requirements of clients and allows salespeople to submit individual offers. Integrating customer and historical data into the production setup of Industry 4.0 is a key aspect of 3D printing and the innovative advantages it offers over conventional production technology.
Another advantage with digitalizing production for 3D printing is that it gives production planners a heads-up if they are about to run out of or run low on parts. The continual circle of communication between machines makes it possible to track usage rates or material wear, and if necessary review orders being submitted to the 3D printers. In areas such as injection molding, this presents a useful option for making better use of high-performance polymers. An injection molding machine can be set up to exchange production cycle data with a 3D printer and organize print runs according to a defined cycle. Then if a slump in orders is anticipated, quality standards can still be maintained and costs can be contained.
The combination between digital solutions and additive manufactoring offered by Industry 4.0 represents the next important milestone in our industrial economy, and it promises to revolutionize manufacturing. Additive manufacturing has an important role to play by offering flexibility and the facility to freely adapt shapes – to name just two of the hundreds of advantages offered. As such, it’s a shining example of the way our production technologies are becoming more usage- and customer- centric; technology is improving by becoming more autonomous, resulting in long-term efficiency and quality gains.
Tony Tran-Mai is director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center IMAPS Institute for Material Applications & 3D Printing Solutions. The services of the Steinbeis Enterprise range from application consulting on additive manufacturing processes to the selection of suitable 3D printing systems and materials for individual component developments, the planning of launch strategies in existing business companies, seminars, training sessions, and workshops on additive manufactoring.
Philipp Renner works at Apium Additive Technologies GmbH. Apium provides its customers with products and solutions for processing high-performance polymers using a 3D printing technique called fused filament fabrication.