Hannover Messe 2016: The future of European manufacturing

Sunday 24th April, 2016, was a significant day for the manufacturing industry.

US President Barack Obama met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to formally open Hannover Messe 2016 as the United States became the event’s official partner country for the first time in its 69 year history. Obama’s presence at the event sent out a strong message to the entire industry; that Germany and, indeed, the whole of Europe, can be once again recognised as the heart of global manufacturing as the industry faces a new era of digital disruption.

Digital revolution

Recent headlines on the global economic downturn and its effect on the state of manufacturing have made for gloomy reading. The industry is currently facing scrutiny from parties concerned for its survival. A study by the British Chambers of Commerce, for example, suggested that, at the end of 2015, manufacturing in the UK was 'close to stagnation'. Causes for such concern included a decrease in domestic and export sales, with competition from low-wage economies such as China, and the falling prices of manufactured goods cited as additional factors.

Far from facing a decline, however, the industry could, in fact, be on the verge of a renaissance.

Manufacturing is currently undergoing a digital revolution, where new business models are being built around customer demand, production speed, and enhanced software programming.

As a result of recent developments in digital technology, businesses are in a position to embrace advanced manufacturing processes in which hardware and software come together to allow previously unimaginable faster production times.

Versatility and scale

With advanced techniques such as rapid prototyping, for example, manufacturers have the versatility and mass-scale production they need to remain competitive. Ideas created with CAD software can very quickly become reality through the use of computerised numerical control (CNC) machining, advanced injection moulding, and 3D printing techniques. Prototype components can be produced within a matter of days from their initial designs being submitted.

3D printing in particular is becoming an increasingly popular option for short production runs. The economy of scale that comes from the ability to simultaneously print multiple components is self-evident, as are the benefits of being able to create intricate, complex geometrical shapes that demand great dimensional tolerances.

From manufacturing a run of simple ‘widgets’ to one-off complex component prototypes, it doesn’t need to be a state-of-the-art aircraft or high-performance vehicle to warrant the use of these advanced digital manufacturing technologies. 3D printing technology, for example, is especially effective for products requiring a tailored bespoke element, such as medical implants or ergonomically functional grips.

And the importance of these techniques is only set to grow as customer demand for fast and quality produced parts increases.

The brightest and the best

Investing in new skill sets is crucial as the industry continues to adopt advanced manufacturing services and technologies. If it is to succeed, this manufacturing revolution will require highly skilled workers; the brightest and best software developers, programmers, designers, engineers and inventors, all armed with the best possible qualifications in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

According to Matthew Hancock, the former Minister of State for Business, Enterprise and Energy, the industry is 'hungry for high-level skills, especially in STEM subjects'. He added that 'we’ve put millions of extra capital investment into STEM teaching facilities and we are putting £185 million more into the teaching of these subjects'.

There really has never been a more exciting time for those with STEM talent to shine, and take advantage of roles that will make the most of their much sought-after skills. By investing in, and encouraging the next generation of talent, the industry will ‘digitally connect the dots’ of the modern factory floor in a number of new and innovative ways.

Strong potential for a resurgence

Following Hannover Messe, all eyes are turning to an industry that, while appearing to be facing a decline towards the end of 2015, is showing very strong potential for a resurgence.

In the UK alone, plans are afoot to set the industry back on track. The CBI, for example, is calling on the government to back strategies aimed at improving skills, infrastructure and R&D investment. At the same time, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has launched a competitions in which UK manufacturing businesses can apply for a share of £15 million of funding.

The rise in digital manufacturing across Europe will restore its place on the world map, allowing a new generation of ‘makers’ to bring their ideas to market at speeds never before experienced.

It’s now time to embrace the latest digital technologies, rejuvenating the industry and making 2016 a turning point in its fortunes.

Damian Hennessey, Director, Proto Labs

Image Credit: Shutterstock/SFC