3D printing is quickly outgrowing its adolescence and becoming a practical tool that many believe will reshape production and manufacturing.
This year, Nike created its first 3D-printed shoe base plate for pro sports. At Disney World, tourists can order Stormtrooper figurines with their own heads 3D-printed onto the body. In the medical field, researchers have successfully printed human tissue using a special “bio-ink.”
Industry consulting firm Wohlers projects the global 3D printing market will hit $6 billion by 2021, and Gartner is calling the shift a “Digital Industrial Revolution” that will impact multiple industries, including construction, education, energy, government, medical, military, retail, telecommunications, transportation, and utilities.
Fundamentally, 3D printing is the technique of constructing physical objects in successive layers with material delivered through a nozzle (often acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or “ABS”). It differs from traditional manufacturing in its ability to create without waste or excess, for which reason it’s often called “additive manufacturing.”
On the one hand, this ability to manufacture according to a specific set of digital instructions means that products can be constructed at will and with a much larger degree of customization. On the other hand, it also brings increased technical complexity and data demand.
Keeping Up with the Data
3D printing is growing fast and accumulating large industry followers. Spending on 3D printers is expected to increase from $1.6 billion this year to around $13.4 billion in 2018, and 3D printer shipments are expected to more than double every year during that period.
To prevent the speed of market growth from surpassing companies’ ability to govern the resulting data, CIOs and engineers will need to batten down the hatches and isolate those areas where increased mining, analytics, and security can add value to their manufacturing processes.
Does that mean CIOs and quality assurance (QA) analysts will replace assembly line workers and product inspectors? Does that mean the factories of the future will look more like data centers, with armies of 3D printers humming away on desolate factory floors? We can only speculate.
We do know, however, that 3D printing and big data will work together for each other’s mutual benefit. Here are four areas in which we can expect to see the interdependence of big data and 3D printing:
1. Data Enables Custom Manufacturing. The efficiency and customization power of 3D printing could turn production inside out. Instead of mass producing goods and trying to sell as many as possible, companies can now build products on request, especially because 3D printing drastically cuts manufacturing time.
The data implication of this kind of “bespoke” manufacturing is that it will require huge backlogs of CAD (computer-aided design) files corresponding to the items they create. Imagine a recipe book, but on a much larger scale. These files can be massive and complex, which inevitably means they’ll require more server space, stringent security, and keen archival methods.
2. Data Feeds Quality Assurance. GE Aviation says it will be building more than 100,000 engine components with 3D printing by 2020. This method is faster and more efficient in terms of labor, but it also requires more advanced quality control. Countless factors can affect the outcome of the final product, including temperature, alignment, deflection, shrinkage, expansion, structural integrity, and more.
According to Steve Rengers, head of R&D at GE Aviation, the company uses multiple sensors to monitor parameters during each build, and the data from these projects are captured and analyzed in real time. GE’s data analytics reduce terabytes of data into megabytes of actionable insight. Rengers estimates this approach boosts their production speed by 25 percent and cuts post-build inspection time.
Speaking of sensors, there also has been talk of connecting remote monitoring and diagnostics data with 3D printing to design smarter machines (cars, airplanes, refrigerators, etc.) that can isolate their own defects and order spare parts. Digital blueprints for these parts, of course, would be waiting in a backlog, ready to print upon request.
3. 3D Printing and Data Visualization. As the global data pool multiplies, companies in all sectors are searching for innovative ways to make sense of their data.
Two researchers at MIT proved 3D printing’s utility as a data visualization tool when they fabricated a 3D scale model of the MIT campus and used colored lights from a projector to display various data about the school, such as building height and Twitter posts by location.
The advantage of the model, they said, is that it provides a fixed framework for displaying variable data inputs. As the price for printers and printing services comes down, these kinds of models will become accessible and affordable for professionals who need geospatial models – such as city planners studying traffic patterns, for example.
4. Printing Data Storage. There has been some speculation about the possibility of 3D printing storage drives, server components, circuit boards, and other technology. In theory, these printed drives could host the tomes of data used for printing other tangible goods, enabling fully self-sustained production growth.
The technology isn’t quite there yet, but there have been murmurs of ingenuity, including the development of an electrically conductive filament, called Functionalize F-Electric, capable of being printed into functional circuit boards, and the sensational Carbomorph, a conductive composite used for custom, portable electronics.
Printing magnetic drives and more advanced storage devices is certainly on the brink of plausibility.
Many digital-age inventions would be meaningless without the contribution of intelligible data, and 3D printing is no exception. Even if we are nearing a “third industrial revolution,” as some say, and even if 3D printing is the next water mill, the next assembly line, or one-machine-to-rule-them-all, it will require a purposeful alliance with the information that feeds it. Otherwise, it’s merely an expensive novelty for hobbyists and inventors.
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