Facing a future of uncertainty with digitalisation and advanced manufacturing

If recent reports are to be believed, prospects for the manufacturing industry are uncertain.

Global accountancy firm BDO’s Optimism Index, released at the beginning of February, suggested that confidence in the industry had hit a 20-month high, while a report from financial analysts IHS Markit revealed that, during January, the UK manufacturing sector grew at its fastest rate for two and a half years.

A month earlier, however, the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, reported that 47% of manufacturing executives thought they would be in for a ‘bumpy ride’ over the course of 2017.

Conflicting reports such as these depict an uncertain future, making it challenging for manufacturers to determine what’s ahead.

Digital revolution

Similar to other industries, manufacturing is undergoing a digital revolution. Customers are increasingly expecting products and services that meet their own specific needs, at a level of satisfactory quality, with availability to access at any time via their preferred channel.

Companies seeking to launch products quickly to the market cannot wait for lengthy prototype production processes, therefore manufacturers are increasingly adapting to provide rapid service delivery as standard. In tandem manufacturers must also balance the cost of development and production in order to remain operationally efficient.

For manufacturing businesses to achieve the flexibility, agility and speed to market that are required to meet these new expectations, they should consider the opportunities to improve and transform products and processes made available by adopting digitalisation and advanced manufacturing techniques

Advanced techniques

The evolution of digital manufacturing means the turnaround process is now faster than ever previously imagined, with customers able to receive components or finished parts within days of submitting a design online.

And, depending on their specific requirements, customers have a choice of the most suitable advanced manufacturing techniques.

CNC machining, a process in which computers are used to control high-speed milling and turning tools, tends to be a popular choice for use in the manufacture of parts for commercial and industrial equipment and machinery.

CNC machining may not be appropriate for every business, however, and differing technical requirements, part geometries, customer demands, and economies of scale might mean that 3D printing is more suitable.

3D printers are now producing human organs, prosthetic limbs, and even food. The technology can create intricate, complex geometrical shapes that demand great dimensional tolerances. These advances give manufacturers the flexibility to reimagine how they design the components that make up their products.

What’s more, the potential for producing an almost infinite variety of finished parts and iterations means that 3D printing can also remove the costs associated with the creation of machine tools.

3D printing and CNC machining can sometimes offer a mutual advantage. For example, CNC machining can be employed as an add-on to fine tune 3D printed objects. The two processes can also be used in conjunction to meet the increasingly tough design challenges faced by today’s manufacturers, such as the demand for ever more lightweight components and products.

While 3D printing is more widely known than CNC machining, both services play an equally important role in addressing the needs of an industry faced with having to create effective high-quality parts and products, faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Facing the future

In times of uncertainty, manufacturers must evolve to meet the demands of their customers. By embracing the latest developments in digitalisation and advanced manufacturing techniques—such as 3D printing and CNC machining—the manufacturing industry should be better able to face the future with renewed confidence.

By Stephen Dyson, head of industry 4.0, Proto Labs