IoT and 3D printing: The new manufacturing revolution

 By enabling designs or design cycles which were previously unachievable using conventional methods, 3D printing technology is helping businesses implement improvements in material selection and product design, bringing new and innovative business models to light and helping establish cost-effective processes to make businesses more efficient.

But extra capabilities resulting from the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) can make 3D printing even more promising and exciting for businesses in the future. In fact results are already showing a benefit; manufacturers utilising IoT solutions saw an average of 28.5 per cent increase in revenue between 2013 and 2014 according to a TATA Consultancy Survey.

A great opportunity exists to significantly improve productivity on the modern manufacturing floor, linking the IoT and 3D printing to gain smarter ‘real-life’ insights over the competition, combining the two to make business production processes more efficient than ever before.  

Why look at the IoT and 3D printing together?

3D printing technology is becoming increasingly popular in the automotive, electronics, and healthcare industries, to name a few, and the IoT can play an important role in ensuring quality control by connecting big data analytics to 3D printing through the strategic use of embedded sensors.

The IoT involves a constantly-growing number of sensors and devices gathering every possible bit of data about human behaviour and interaction, and allowing businesses to gather information about how their products behave, and use it to understand and predict future behaviours.

By placing sensors to collect and analyse manufacturing information to detect production problems in real time, the technology can identify factors such as temperature and structural integrity that help improve the quality of output coming from the manufacturing floor. This is something that is already being applied by companies such as GE Aviation in the aerospace industry.

Combining the two revolutions – digital manufacturing and big data – is starting to equip a multitude of industries with tools that can revolutionise the way processes are monitored, analysed and improved to enhance the quality of products.

What expectations lie ahead for these technologies?   

Amongst the most disruptive IT technologies that will change the way people work and live in the next couple of years KPMG predicts the IoT and 3D printing are likely to be amongst the top three, estimating that the number of active wireless-connected devices will cross 40.9 billion by 2020.

Similarly, consultancy company IDTechEx forecasts that the total 3D printing market will reach $20 billion (£14 billion) by 2025, and IDC research published in January 2016, predicts global spending on 3D printing will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 27 per cent from nearly $11 billion (£8 billion) in 2015 to $26.7 billion (£18 billion) in 2019.

It is therefore safe to say that 3D printing has huge market potential and is likely to be increasingly used to manufacture a broader and more complex range of products such as electrical and optical sensors, antennas and circuitry used for industrial IoT applications that make devices truly ‘smart and connected’, in the future.

In the next few years we are also likely to see some rapid advancements in metal 3D printing to produce a wider range of finished goods, including more medical implants than is possible today. The speed of printers is expected to increase too. Research is underway on how to combine different types of materials such as metals and plastics in a single build cycle, and how to embed components such as sensors, electronics and batteries.

Moreover, as the organisers of the January 2016 3D Printing Electronics Conference in Eindhoven, said, ‘Combining functional elements such as electronics (sensors or switches) into a 3D‑printed product could open up new markets and new applications of products’.

Will the end consumer notice the difference of these advancements?

With an increase in demand and the set of expectations tied to it, consumers want rapidly produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days, at the highest of standards and with all their specific requirements fulfilled. 3D printing can play an important role in achieving this with support from the IoT.

One of the IoT’s biggest appeals is the interconnectedness it offers for devices. With the right data available, the capabilities of 3D printing can grow further, allowing complex prototypes and different product mixes at all stages of development to be built much faster.

In other words, whilst 3D printing helps offer businesses the flexibility to reimagine how parts are designed and manufactured, opening up further opportunities for improvement and product line expansion, the IoT can add to this by making the technology more flexible and accurate through the data it is able to collect and utilise, helping meet new demand expectations.

The rise in digital manufacturing across Europe offers a new generation of engineers and designers the perfect opportunity to bring their ideas to market at speeds never before experienced. Furthermore, IoT solutions are in a great position to merge with the new digital manufacturing processes, to help bring together the new ‘digital enterprise’ of the future.

Damian Hennessey, commercial director at Proto Labs

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