3D printing is continuing to gather momentum and grow in demand as demonstrated by many recent headlines. Companies and individuals across a range of industries are experimenting by extruding various different materials, including plastic and metal for prototyping their products and parts.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Manufacturers using #IoT solutions saw an average 28.5 per cent increase in revenue between 2013 and 2014″]

Whilst a significant value of 3D printing comes from enabling designs or design cycles which were previously challenging to achieve using conventional methods, extra capabilities resulting from the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) promise to make 3D printing useful in many new and more exciting ways.

In fact, manufacturers utilising IoT solutions saw an average 28.5 per cent increase in revenue between 2013 and 2014 according to a TATA Consultancy Survey. The next generation of talent has the opportunity to ‘digitally connect the dots’ of a modern factory floor to gain smarter ‘real-life’ insight over their competition, linking 3D processes through the use of IoT.

A new array of business opportunities

If a business leader is not considering implementing fundamentally different processes or part designs, then they will miss out on much of the benefit and opportunities for overall cost reduction and value enhancement.

3D printing fundamentally allows for rapid design cycles which can either reduce design time, or can improve designs in a given time, or often both. Moreover, this innovative printing process can reduce the overall costs of manufacturing, even if the end process implemented is not 3D printing itself.

Looking ahead, extra capabilities resulting from the integration of the IoT with 3D printing promise even more exciting opportunities. With the advent of big data and the idea of remote printing, we will soon be able to gain smarter ‘real-life’ insights over the competition and link up 3D processes like never before.

Industry-specific examples

Businesses operating in the aeronautical and healthcare sectors serve as good illustrations of the how 3D printing and the IoT can be combined to deliver tangible business benefits.

To keep pace with an increasingly competitive international market, it’s crucial that the UK’s aerospace industry continues to find ways to improve passenger experience whilst scaling back costs and becoming more energy efficient. For this reason, many businesses within the aeronautical manufacturing industry are already considering new design, manufacture techniques and technologies such as 3D printing that will help them meet demands for greater efficiency and innovation while, at the same time, enabling them to work within ever tighter budgets.

In the recent United Launch Alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for example, a move to 3D printing technology for the manufacture of components saved the companies a reported $1 million in a year.

However, with 3D printing still being a relatively new technology, engineers need to create adequate quality control methods and the IoT can play an important role in this.

GE Aviation, for example, now connects big data to 3D printing using strategically placed sensors to collect and analyse manufacturing information to detect production problems in real time. The technology identifies factors such as temperature and structural integrity and the data gathered helps improve the quality of outputs from many manufacturing products.

In the healthcare industry, the use of 3D printing is currently helping to improve the quality of many patients’ lives. For example, individuals with just one finger can now use personalised joysticks to control their wheelchair, whilst the existence of customised bionic eyes is helping people with profound vision loss to recover some sight using a retinal implant.

At the same time, the data revolution is empowering the healthcare industry by enabling the development of connected devices such as wearables and tailored apps which are helping consumers take control over their own health in a highly personalised manner.

Combining these two revolutions – digital manufacturing and big data – will equip the industry with tools that can revolutionise the way health is monitored, analysed and improved in order to enhance everyone’s quality of life.

What next?

With an ever increasing demand for fast and quality produced parts and the convergence of software and hardware, the importance of 3D printing techniques is likely to continue growing and developing further.

To plan the journey towards realising the aspiration of being a true ‘digital enterprise’, on-demand manufacturing is key, and innovative manufacturing companies need to differentiate themselves by always looking to go one step ahead.

For this reason, manufacturers are likely to not only adopt 3D printing technologies that allow them to transform their operating models but also to digitally connect the processes so that information about product usage, production capabilities and market and customer requirements can be shared and analysed much faster than ever before.

[easy-tweet tweet=”#IoT solutions are in a great position to merge with the new #digital manufacturing processes”]

Ultimately, IoT solutions are in a great position to merge with the new digital manufacturing processes, to digitally connect the dots in the manufacturing floor and help bring together the new ‘digital enterprise’ of the future.

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Damian Hennessey, Commercial Director, Proto Labs Damian Hennessey has been part of Proto Labs for almost a decade. He has successfully built the commercial function and now leads Europe’s largest sales team for Proto Labs. A qualified engineer by profession he combines technical and industry expertise to deeply understand the strategic requirements of our customers.