Last year, global events coupled with the cost of living crisis motivated manufacturers – big and small – across a range of industries to re-think their centralised production models. We’re seeing a greater number of companies integrate technologies like additive manufacturing (AM) into their factory floor operations to work alongside more traditional processes – enabling them to bring products to market more swiftly.
From an SME perspective, this cost-effective method of prototyping and manufacturing on-demand is helping non-corporate businesses to become more competitive, flexible and agile.
This article looks at the numerous advantages of AM for SMEs. It addresses the sector’s current appetite for this manufacturing method and includes predictions for the year ahead.
Helping to Meet Competitive Demand
When it comes to innovation, SMEs tend to be open, because the decision makers are generally more involved in the day-to-day aspects of running the business. And, as a result we are seeing trends in additive manufacturing shifting to this sector.
For many, AM is speeding up design cycles, helping to make SMEs become more competitive, flexible and agile.
AM offers numerous advantages for SMEs. In addition to creating cost-effective designs and prototypes, AM makes it simple to produce strong, robust end-use parts and products quickly and accurately, resulting in shorter lead times. This is particularly advantageous for SMEs dealing with urgent projects or responding to dynamic market demands, allowing them to bring products to market more swiftly, which – in many cases – will be helping them to win contracts and compete with larger players.
For example, a Birmingham-based provider of specialist radio, mobile and surveillance equipment for police, military, government, and industrial sectors uses Markforged to circumvent supply chain delays and speed up their production times. AM technology has also opened doors to help the company to customise their designs and create new and improved products.
Beyond Hobbyists: The Continuing Trend of Personalised And On-Demand Manufacturing
On-shore production and localised manufacturing practices are already providing businesses with greater flexibility, responsiveness, and resilience in the production process, which I believe is set to continue in the coming year.
I predict we will see more designers, engineers and manufacturers across a variety of industries adopting AM to design, test, create and customise the parts, tools and products they need, when and where they need them.
For example, local automotive service centres are printing parts on-demand to service cars and urban mobility companies are using AM to create user-friendly fastening mechanisms for the bike and scooter backpacks they sell to consumers.
This AM-fuelled drive toward on-demand manufacturing will also help businesses to reduce their transportation and shipping costs, environmental impact, and product lead time – increasing efficiency.
Additive technology is getting smarter. This is due in large part to advances in connected AM platforms that allow machines to collect – and learn from – information with each build. This is fuelling better design, performance and problem solving for the SME.
In the year ahead, we will see further integration of data-driven technologies such as sensors, feedback, analytics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT) continuing to enhance the quality, reliability, and efficiency of the AM process and products – helping to ensure its future within the SME sector.
These data-empowered, Smart AM platforms will add another layer of insurance against supply chain challenges, untimely hold ups and failures, helping to perfect designs that allow manufacturers (large and small) to get the best performance and business returns from every part they print.
Sustainability and ESG
With the global temperature in 2024 set to be the warmest year on record, it will be harder for governments and business to ignore the growing social, and governance (ESG) agenda. While these are complex issues, especially when it comes to manufacturing industries, I believe investors and consumers alike will continue to encourage the development of a circular economy and the reduction of carbon emissions. AM’s role in local and on-demand manufacturing can help to reduce the monetary and environmental costs of waste, energy consumption, and shipping, but there is more to be done.
As it continues to become smarter, faster, more accurate, efficient, and – undoubtedly – more sustainable, Additive manufacturing will become a more integral part of production lines and manufacturing processes. I believe that in 2024, we will see more additive technology at work on factory floors around the world.