Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Coming Revolution

Two of the world’s most celebrated works of art, David and the Pietà, were sculpted at the turn of the 16th century by Michelangelo, the Florentine outlier. Michelangelo chipped away at massive blocks of Tuscany marble like an ordinary artisan wielding a hammer and chisel. However, only an extraordinarily gifted artist could have divined such masterpieces.

Fast-forward to the 19th century when the flowering of culture had given way to a more rational and technical era, typified by the invention of the milling machine. This trailblazing tool was used to shape solid objects by removing excess material to form an end product. Subsequently, the Machine Age ushered in machines that automated physical tasks for high-volume mass production. The Digital Age, just decades old, introduced machines that automate mental tasks in the form of computer software.

Some have wondered where the Michelangelos and Leonardo da Vincis of our age are likely to be found. Silicon Valley, perhaps? If instantiated, that would represent quite a wild ride for two archetypal Renaissance men mutating into Californian software engineers! Generally acknowledged as history’s most towering genius, the thought of Leonardo da Vinci interfacing with modern gadgets beggars the imagination.

These days, software innovation is gradually shifting focus away from subtractive to additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing techniques are based on mechanised labour subtracting material from a larger block to create a prototype, a moulding tool, or a finished product. Tellingly, a significant drawback in subtractive manufacturing is that as much as 90% of the base material is wasted, when not recyclable.

Starting in the 1980s, additive manufacturing or 3D Printing (3DP, three-dimensional printing) began its slow ascent to a potential tipping point in terms of adoption. To the uninitiated, 3DP encompasses the technologies and processes that enable production layer by layer - on a sub-micro scale - in an additive process. It starts with the design of a three-dimensional digital model of a product. Next, a generated 3D-readable file or blueprint is sent to a 3D printer which then translates base materials such as metals, plastics, food substrates, sand or ceramics into a prototype or a final product.

Early adopters included the medical and dental sector where personalisation of human parts such as hip implants, hearing aids and dental crowns was dominant. The architectural, space exploration, automotive, aerospace, fashion, and jewellery industries could also justify the high 3DP set-up costs in the pursuit of high-value bespoke customisation. Once a niche market, the exploitation of 3DP by smaller organisations and individuals began when the price point of an entry-level 3D printer dipped below US$1,000.

As additive manufacturing became more democratised, the new technology slowly migrated from the fringes to the mainstream. For conservationists who champion resource efficiency in manufacturing, 3DP guarantees negligible material and energy loss. Furthermore, industrial 3DP eliminates the need for dedicated tools and the associated factory expenditure. Therefore, as a contribution towards the long-term health of our planet, this is a big deal.

Aside from the manufacturing-on-demand efficacy of 3DP, other advantages include localisation, product personalisation, nimbleness, affordability, and faster prototyping. Since a product design file can be transmitted to a 3D printer anywhere in the world, supply chains will routinely be bypassed and disaggregated. In addition, reduction in product stockpiling will drastically lower storage and transportation costs.

On the downside, two headline threats to the growth of additive manufacturing must be addressed. First is the issue of counterfeiting and intellectual property infringement. Unless practitioners are able to protect their copyrights, this may curb innovation. Equally worrisome is the unintended latitude afforded private citizens to manufacture dangerous weapons like guns and knives. Already, regulators may well be behind the curve.
It’s a safe bet that 3DP will not wholly supplant subtractive manufacturing, but rather complement it. As a budding proposition, additive manufacturing seems poised to revolutionise sustainable production, supply chains, the job market, and much more. Stay tuned.

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