Editor’s Note: This is a guest article from 3D Hubs.

As we come to the end of 2019, the technologies behind mass-scale digitization aren’t slowing down at all. Within the next five years, 85% of industrial companies are expected to have implemented Industry 4.0 technologies in all important business divisions. As a result, the consolidation of digitalization across the industry has produced practical digital applications that are only beginning to become visible today. 

The manufacturing industry due to a myriad of challenges has been sluggish to adopt full-scale digitalization efforts. The few leaders that have ventured to the frontier of digital transformation have laid the groundwork for the rest to follow.

However, the mainstream approach has been more ‘wait and see’ than ‘full steam ahead’. As a result, there is a clash between product engineers’ expectations and mainstream manufacturers’ mentalities. 

So whilst in the past, manufacturers have been slow to adopt new technologies, 2020 is likely to be a year of widespread digital adoption. The sparks have caught and with outliers challenging the status quo, the industry is being pushed forward. 

“With technology changing rapidly, manufacturers must future-proof their Industry 4.0 transformation plans or risk falling behind their competitors,” states the 2019 McKinsey Future-proofing a Digital Manufacturing Transformation report.

Engineers are at their core open to innovation and technology in their work. They must, however, due to the nature of the process, collaborate at multiple levels across their value chain with industries that have not always adopted the same mindset. For them, the digitalization of the manufacturing industry means they can embed these time, energy and money-saving efforts across the entire production process. 

But what are the driving technologies we expect to see in 2020 and how will they empower engineers? We put together our top three.

  1. The advent of online on-demand manufacturing

The online on-demand manufacturing industry – digital platforms that facilitate the entire manufacturing process through a network of distributed partners – has been experimenting with new materials and innovative business models over the past year.

By creating an ecosystem of quality manufacturers, all engineers have to do to get their parts made is to upload their CAD designs, specify the material, surface finish, threaded holes, tolerances and lead time to the cloud. The platform will then confirm the design and a member of the distributed network with the manufacturing capabilities for the specific part that will take on the project. 

In addition to 3D printing plastics and metals, online on-demand manufacturing companies are now offering suites with different processes including CNC machining, sheet metal production, injection molding, and urethane casting. With the ability to access these methods of manufacturing online, on-demand part production becomes a more viable manufacturing method.

Whilst this industry is still in its infancy, the potential it unlocks for engineers is huge. Traditionally, parts production has been affected by long lead times to approve the quote itself, hindered by international transport and high-quantity minimum orders increasing cost and downtime. By reducing these barriers to high-quality parts, online on-demand manufacturing allows engineers to deliver without compromising their design.

In the coming year, we expect to see more of engineers turning to on-demand manufacturing as a way to solve their major pain points. It’s likely this will lead to increased competition in this industry, as well as a consolidation of market leaders across the board. This will ultimately drive platforms to adopt new materials and draw more manufacturers into the distributed network, leading to increased choice for engineers, less downtime and lower costs.

  1. Increased likelihood of partnerships and joint ventures 

Manufacturers have found it difficult to go beyond the test-phase of their digitalization strategy due to their sheer size, globalized supply chain and lack of clear objectives. Whilst this is beginning to change, typically large organizations lag behind when it comes to adopting truly digital mindsets across their ranks. Decision-makers are aware of this and as a result, they’re looking at bringing in digital expertise from across their ecosystem. 

“As manufacturers think about building agility into their supply chains, there is increasing realization that these efforts cannot occur in isolation,” states Deloitte’s 2020 Manufacturing Industry Outlook. “The need to cultivate a strong ecosystem is a trend that has emerged, and our research shows that it is an increasingly effective strategy for manufacturers, especially as it relates to digital momentum.” 

According to the consulting firm, this trend will likely play out over the coming year in two distinct ways. Firstly, smart factories – those at the forefront of the digital transition – are seeing the benefits of partnerships across their ecosystem, creating new business models and value for their customers at a rate significantly higher than their competitors. Laggards who’ve been reluctant to move are now looking to replicate this success in their own firms. Secondly, those pushing the frontier aren’t done yet, and they’re likely to continue to expand their own ecosystems as a means to source capabilities they don’t have in-house.

Whilst many market leaders are using this strategy to further their digital vision, Deloitte’s report suggests that “given the relative premium value on digital capabilities in the market, however, it may be more likely that 2020 will bring partnerships and joint ventures rather than outright acquisitions.” 

Access to an external ecosystem of partners is essential to fill in the large talent and capability deficit that many manufacturers experience. Thus, it’s likely we’ll see a year of partnerships between large firms and innovative digital scale-ups. As a result, engineers will benefit from an increased focus on user experience, internal communication, and streamlined customer journeys.

  1. The evolution of 3D printing into a standalone commercial industry

What began as a technology primarily used for prototyping and engineers’ toys has evolved into an industry in itself. 3D printing is considered to be one of the most disruptive of all Industry 4.0 technologies. “As a key element of the Industry 4.0 revolution, 3DP is evolving as a practicable alternative for both product development and conventional manufacturing” states a PwC whitepaper on I4.0 from late last year.

Driving the industry forward is the arrival of new materials over the past few years; applications are exploding. Originally only a small selection of plastics were available to use in printing projects. Today the addition of materials such as concrete, metal and nano-particle ink have expanded the potential for innovation exponentially. 

With the arrival of printers that are larger, faster and more intricate, engineers have the capability to build objects on a much grander scale than before. For example, four of the most amazing 3D prints from this year are:

  • The first 3D printed human heart printed in Israel this year using the patient’s biological materials. Tel Aviv University researchers printed the vascularised engineered heart using a patient’s own cells and biological materials.

Whilst over the past years, 3D printing technologies such as metal and concrete have been relatively expensive, the continuous stream of innovations has integrated them into the mainstream production process. 

As printers themselves have been advancing at a rapid pace, they’re getting closer to what in the industry is considered the holy grail of 3D printing. Multi-material printing, the 3D printing technology which will allow engineers to design using a combination of various filaments.

This method of printing is poised to unlock the most value of all 3D printing techniques. Whilst steps have been made to introduce multi-material printing in a prototyping environment, this technology looks set to advance into commercial-use over the next year or two.

2020 and Beyond
In the long run, these technological advances will allow engineers to have greater freedom in their design, productive in their prototyping and effective in their delivery. The evolution in materials and the machinery itself has experts predicting that the 3D printing industry will grow to be worth upwards of $50 billion by 2026. Add on top of this sum the rapidly expanding on-demand manufacturing industry and the likelihood of partnerships across the board, and we’re starting to see 2020 as the baseline of the manufacturing industry’s fast-tracked digitalization process.

About the author: Filemon Schoffer is the co-founder and CCO of 3D Hubs, an online manufacturing platform that empowers engineers to create revolutionary products, manufactured without compromise.

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