Traditional manufacturing processes are oriented to large-scale production, beyond an economic feasibility threshold, to satisfy the needs of the majority of potential users. However, there is always a remaining minority that, not finding exactly what they require, resorts to customisation.
But we are now on the way to achieve efficiently products that satisfy the specific requirements of individual users. This paradigm change, brought in by additive manufacturing, will generate more effective working practices and new business models.
For example, Aleph Objects Inc has installed in Colorado a printing farm with 140 3D printers, dedicated to producing parts for 3D printers by additive manufacturing; this allows them to make new printers while, at the same time, providing themselves with the spare parts they require for maintaining the farm. Impressive, isn’t it?
As stated by Alberto Echevarría. Technological Manager of IK4 Lortek, a centre for technological innovation, “we research constantly and acquire knowledge for improving equipment and materials, and to develop design and prediction tools to advance along that path. Our main objective is to understand the process and its key variables, assess the implications and help the users. In the medium to long term, in relation to printing farms, we aim to certify those clusters, thereby helping to standardise processes, materials and software.”
We can now reduce the number of prototypes required for manufacturing, while also opening new avenues for efficiency: there is no need to produce large quantities, only what is strictly necessary. Underlying is the concept of zero inventory: I do not stock because I can produce what is required when required (print on demand).
Printing farms will be clusters of many printers, operating simultaneously to make parts of different materials, with information transmitted in real time, receiving the end-product or assembling it in-house, producing small series of customised products.
Clearly, there is still long way ahead before the process reaches an industrial scale, currently we are only in a first phase. The lack of standardised processes and the limitations of engineers’ training still hinder the generalisation of the technology. But the next 5-10 years are likely to witness a multiplication of printing farms worldwide, expediting processes and generating new fields for manufacturers.