Damian Hennessey from Proto Labs discusses how the UK manufacturing sector can thrive by embracing new technologies in 2016 and beyond
If the UK’s manufacturing industry is to thrive, it has to take on new challenges and continually reimagine processes and production methods.
A leaf can be taken from the books of the banking and public sectors in this regard, as an illustration of how ‘digital transformation’ is touching many areas of business and industry across the country. The retail banking sector, for example, influenced by the demands of customers, has taken significant steps toward a digital transformation; from offering services such as online banking to rolling out new technologies such as fingerprint authentication for mobile banking.
Furthermore, local councils across the UK are ushering in a new era of fast and convenient services. By embracing digital processes such as allowing citizens to apply for parking permits online, tasks can be completed at the touch of a button.
The manufacturing sector is also increasingly being shaped by increasing customer demand. Customers now want rapidly produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days. The challenge for manufacturers is how they can generate this speed to market without compromising on quality or customer satisfaction.
The rise of ‘digital manufacturing’
Recent developments in manufacturing technologies have contributed to the rise of ‘digital manufacturing’ across Europe, empowering the digital economy and allowing a whole new generation of ‘makers’ to bring their ideas to market at speeds never before experienced.
Advances such as rapid prototyping can provide manufacturers with the versatility and mass-scale production that they need to succeed in the highly competitive environment in which they operate.
Ideas created on a CAD screen can now quickly become reality via automated CNC (computerised numerical control) machining, advanced injection moulding and 3D printing techniques, meaning that prototype components can be produced within just a couple of days of their designs being submitted.
3D printing, for example, lends itself to short production runs and rapid-turn prototyping. The ability to print multiple components simultaneously – particularly when the components are intricate and demand great dimensional tolerances – clearly demonstrates the benefits that 3D printing can offer.
However, while the idea of 3D printing fascinates the public and the press, for design engineers in-the-know, it is only part of the real revolution in manufacturing.
Before moving from prototype into volume production, design engineers will often want components manufactured in the final intended material to allow them to test for form, fit and function. Today, they can turn to ultra-fast custom injection moulding or CNC machining for real, precision components in real materials, made using the same processes and technologies deployed in volume production without any compromise in quality.
Undergoing a digital revolution
Manufacturing, in common with other industries, is undergoing a digital revolution. New business models are being built around customer demand, production speed, and enhanced software programming.
Developments in digital technology offer exciting opportunities to embrace advanced manufacturing practices in which software and hardware converge for faster production times and rapid prototyping.
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.
And the importance of these techniques is only set to grow as customer demand for fast and quality produced parts increases. Implementing high-tech processes will become crucial for manufacturers looking to remain competitive.
As mass production revolutionised the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, so the 21st century should be set to enjoy a new age of mass customisation made possible by 3D CAD software and on-demand manufacturing solutions.
Technological advances continue to streamline efficiencies and lower costs, and developments in big data and autonomous systems are enabling manufacturers to explore entirely new ways of doing business.
The most successful manufacturers in the 21st century will be those who embrace a revolutionary, high-tech fusion of software and mechanical engineering, automated processes and complex production equipment, 3D CAD models, and rapidly produced on-demand parts.
Damian Hennessey is commercial director at ProtoLabs
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