Manufacturing technologies used today are incredibly different than what was at our disposal in the early 1900s.
When you look closely, however, there are surprising similarities in how advancements took place and how they were received by the industry — a pattern that we’re seeing repeated today.
Before the early 1900s, handwork done by individuals was the norm. A craftsperson worked in concert with apprentices of varying levels of talent to create a product. Individuals were responsible for the quality of their own work.
Harnessing the power of steam and electricity, businesses were able to begin multiplying the physical capabilities of craftspeople and living tools such as horses, and the rules changed.
The limits within which craftspeople, designers and businesses formerly had to function suddenly expanded, making it possible to create products never before imagined.
No longer masters of their own work, craftsmen gave way to line workers, where, in the assembly line, unskilled laborers worked in concert with machines to produce a product that couldn’t be created individually.
The advent of computers and information technology again multiplied the physical power of human workers, but this time computerized machines began to satisfy the demands of the line work better than people.
Computers are faster, more consistent and certainly more durable than the human body could ever be. Fears that people will be replaced by machines still plague manufacturing today, and the socioeconomic impact is hotly debated by communities, governments and within the industry itself.
What we know for sure is that computers changed the rules. Information technologies freed people to guide the manufacturing processes rather than physically making them happen, and workers had the opportunity to become masters of their own work — specialists.
The limits within which designers, engineers and research and development teams had to function suddenly expanded yet again and allowed them to achieve things never before possible.
What characterized each leap in manufacturing technology are the sudden release from entrenched limitations and an accelerated creative process that led to incredible product innovations. Today, additive manufacturing is changing the rules once more.
For years, additive manufacturing, also called industrial 3-D printing, was used only for prototyping, in part because of the limitations of the materials available for use with the machines.
The creative capabilities were huge and far surpassed that of traditional manufacturing — for example the ability to print complex geometries, lattice structures, precise details, a single piece with internal cavities and more — but materials were brittle and delicate or otherwise unsuitable for creating final products.
Traditional manufacturing, of course, is not without its own limitations. Although exceedingly flexible with materials, it is not nearly as capable of ingenious shapes and sizes.
Product designers and engineers regularly have to modify ideal designs to match the limitations of the final production process. It’s what’s called “designing for manufacturability,” and it has restricted innovation in R&D for decades.
Those additive manufacturing design capabilities that have always far surpassed what can be achieved with traditional manufacturing are now possible to attain in an end-use part.
Today, advanced additive manufacturing materials are moisture- and heat-stable as well as much more user friendly. Products can be created in any number of substances appropriate for end-use parts, including true thermoplastic resins, nylons, metals and medical-grade materials.
New industrial 3-D printers can make multimaterials parts or over-molded features. Durable enough to stand up to the rigors of automotive and aerospace testing, additive manufactured parts also are being used in everything from engines to aircraft wings.
Additive manufacturing allows engineers and R&D teams to sidestep “design for manufacturability” limitations they’ve had for years, leading to a flurry of groundbreaking developments such as products with variable flexibility, inks that print parts with embedded electronics and even printed human tissue and organs.
While additive manufacturing still relies heavily on computers and machines, the gold- collar workers required to design, run and maintain the technologically complex equipment are closer to craftspeople than ever before.
Additive manufacturing requires highly skilled and specialized designers, engineers, technicians and fabricators who are experts in their fields to really drive and further develop the manufacturing industry’s 3-D revolution.
-By Ron Belknap