issue: April 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine
Is E-Manufacturing the Future?
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A survey of product and manufacturing engineers reveals that e-manufacturing is quickly coming to the mass market.
EOS, a Germany-based manufacturer of laser sintering systems, recently interviewed industry experts at two German trade shows to investigate the role e-manufacturing plays in today’s production industry. The results, the company says, show that not only is mass production on “the brink of a silent revolution,” but that e-manufacturing is part of that change.
The concept of e-manufacturing includes producing end products, functional parts, and tools directly from CAD data. In laser sintering, for example, a laser heats and melts powdered plastics or metals layer by layer, until the build is complete and a final product can be taken out of the system. Whether it is appliances or functional parts for industry that are being manufactured, e-manufacturing technologies enable the creation of products with highly complex and filigreed structures and forms.
When asked if e-manufacturing is ready for the mass market, 70% of the survey interviewees answered “yes.” 33% believe that individualized production with laser sintering is already market-ready, while 37% predict the establishment of the technology in the market within the next three years. The rest anticipate establishment of e-manufacturing within five years, with only 4% seeing a lag of 10 years.
The survey respondents also felt that mass customization is helping to drive the popularity of e-manufacturing. Of those interviewed, 28% said that the trend toward individualized series production is the most important factor for the success of the technology, and nearly a quarter of the interviewees saw greater “cost savings compared with conventional technologies.” In addition, 22% predicted that e-manufacturing will overtake traditional technologies due to “shorter product life cycles.”
The survey also addressed the challenges associated with e-manufacturing: 29% of the interviewees called the limited choice of materials as the greatest barrier to implementing e-manufacturing technology, and approximately a quarter of the respondents judged the “lack of know-how in the industry” a hindrance.
What does this mean for the future of manufacturing? Of those interviewed, 62% forecast the establishment of individualized mass production in the Western world, while 21% believe that end customers will have their own minifactories and produce their own products with rapid manufacturing (see photo). About 9% of those asked went so far as to remark that in 20 years’ time, manual manufacturing will only take place on the PC.
Jim Fendrick, vice president of EOS of North America, believes the survey findings are especially relevant to today’s appliance manufacturers. “We believe that the results can have a large impact on the appliance manufacturing industry, where low volume, quick turnaround of product design, or mass customization are key components to staying competitive,” he tells APPLIANCE. “E-manufacturing is already impacting portions of this sector, and changing the way products are designed.”
Fendrick says a key advantage of e-manufacturing is the elimination of tooling, which speeds up product development. He admits, however, that traditional technologies like casting will always have their place, at least in the near future. “In general, e-manufacturing offers the most advantages if the products have a complex shape, or if they are small or individualized—for example, consumer electronics,” Fendrick says. “For large components with simple geometries and large batch sizes, traditional technologies probably will still continue to make sense. In an ideal case, companies combine both—new technologies with traditional ones.”