“You can print everything from ceramics, to different metals, to different plastics, and they all behave differently. Because we understand material and material behaviour… we can test the veracity of those materials using a gauge against the final material,” he says.
“For example, if we are making a steel product, we don’t have to immediately go to a steel prototype. We can first do this in ABS plastic and conduct a theoretical test and relate that to how steel would react in the same circumstance. So while we still do final testing in the final product, and around the final size of the product, we cut down the amount of testing dramatically.”
Keech invested significant time in training engineers on how to best use the technology, and to learn about the potential of different materials within a broad canvas of possibilities.
Speed to market is key to survival in the industry, Hermens says, which is what 3D printing technology in manufacturing is all about at the end of the day.
“We need to start running ahead of the market, so we need to develop new products much faster and expand the product range,” he says. “I call it mass production to the individual. You can still maintain a mass production approach but you can make modifications much cheaper now. In automotive in Germany, for example, they are using 3D printing to individualise cars, already.”
Smart sensors and data
Monitoring equipment to prevent failure and adverse effects on business, as well asset optimisation, is a top focus for many manufacturers these days thanks to the rise of the Internet of Things. GE, which manufactures large jet engines and locomotives, is all about doing that, using embedded sensors and analysing the data they transmit over the Internet.
A GE jet engine collects 5000 data points a second or a terabyte a day, while a locomotive generates 9 million data points every hour.
“We are collecting data from machines in real time, transmitting vast amounts of data over the Internet, analysing it in real time, sending it back to the machines and making a change dynamically,” says Mark Sheppard, former CIO at GE Mining Australia.
“This could alert the owner that some characteristics of that equipment might be performing in an unusual way. For example, the oil pressure or temperature was too high, or something was operating out of sync. It wouldn’t necessarily mean the equipment was going to fail straight away, but it might be an indicator that it might fail soon.”
The GE jet engines are able to communicate with ground operators while in flight if they are likely to need repair or maintenance work in the near future. So by the time the aircraft lands, staff can get onto it straight away and not have it manifest into a sudden, serious issue. It means they can also plan ahead for downtime.
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