3D printing technology is really growing in popularity now. Having worked through the growth of sophistication in electronic product manufacturing, I can see how this technology is likely to develop. Today, most printers use a single nozzle with a nylon based plastic paste that is effectively dispensed like an SMT glue machine, except, that layers are built up over each other. It really is that simple. If the technology follows a similar path to SMT, we can expect to see multiple nozzles in the future, each dispensing a different compound, perhaps we will see multi-head machines, even those that can change the nozzles as they go, and even modular machines. The dispense “elements” will of course include different textures, strengths and colours of plastic, but, also you could imagine these could be conductive elements, such as embedded electronic components. It will be quite a while I expect before we can print off something like a working cell-phone, but, you never know……
Such kind of manufacturing would completely change the way the manufacturing industry works. If everyone had a printer, then we simply buy the supplies, in the same way as ink cartridges (you know how expensive they will be!) and then simply purchase the design of whatever we want to build and own. Traditional factories could become a thing of the past, and with them, distribution chains.
Perhaps this technology is quite timely, as there is an increasing amount of discussion now about the costs and risks associated with remote manufacturing. It is a complicated issue. Anyone will understand that factories operating nearer to the main consumer areas in Western Europe and the US would be far more expensive than those operating in lower-cost areas such as South America, China and many parts of Asia, both in terms of labour and also general operating costs. On the other side of the balance however are the costs of remote manufacturing. The transportation costs are the most obvious, which continue to increase rapidly. There are other costs however, associated with the time delay from leaving manufacturing to point of sale, which delays new products into the market and also builds a much larger than necessary inventory of stock in the distribution chain which can then be affected by significant price erosion, especially as products near end of life. Remote manufacturing operations also bring risk, not least from the weather, earthquakes, potential shipping problems, and lack of control of quality and product content. There is increasing pressure now from the side of the cost of remote operations, causing people to look again at the options of local manufacturing. Other than the cost issue however, there are other issues with the local manufacturing option The first is with materials, since the manufacture of materials has followed the assembly operations to the remote locations. It will take some time to bring these back, and until then, materials will have to themselves be imported from the very same remote areas. The other issue is with skills. There has not been a great call for manufacturing engineers on the actual shop-floor recently in Western Europe and the US. As people with skills have retired or moved to other opportunities, often, they have not been replaced. Even those going into consultancy have recently seen opportunities diminish.
Manufacturing in Western Europe and the US will not however want to return to what it once was. It needs to be so much smarter, agile and flexible with no tolerance for ineffective operations, and will experience a steep learning curve to do so. This is where specialist software systems focussed on SMT and electronics product production come in, bringing with them the latest innovations and world-class operation flows. Though we cannot pretend that Mentor’s Valor MSS Suite will make returning and restarting manufacturing operations child’s play, we think that it will provide the best head-start an operation could get. Just as well you cannot use a 3D printer to make software…….