We are living through a period of relentless technology-driven innovation and disruption. If you work in engineering or manufacturing you will, of course, have heard of Additive Manufacturing and seen the 3D printing technology develop from strength to strength. I mean this literally, as Stereolithography (SLA) and it’s plastic output is no longer king. Firmly established now is metal powder sintering, allowing the production of large printed metal components with superior strength properties, such as fan blades and ship propellers.
The next development in additive technologies gaining rapid adoption is Hybrid Manufacturing, a combination of both additive and subtractive methods on a single machine. This gives the best of both worlds, additive for adding metal in-situ and machining for material removal. A technique that plays to the strengths of each respective method; high-speed machining is fast at material removal, but struggles to create complex shapes, whereas additive is slower and not suited to large objects due to internal stress build up. But what is next, what are the additive manufacturing visionaries looking at next?
What do you get when you combine; 3D scanning, Hybrid manufacturing and Non-destructive inspection all in a single machine?
Answer = Hybrid Manufacturing 2.0, a huge disruption to the supply chain industry!
This vision is best described through an example use case. Just imagine working in the engine service department for an airline and receiving a call to say there is a defect on a fan blade. The current repair process may involve removing the engine from the wing whilst a replacement is fitted, causing extensive downtime and associated costs. Imagine if a Hybrid Manufacturing 2.0 machine could be wheeled up and a repair carried out with the engine on the wing? The 3D scanner would ensure accurate defect analysis and positioning, the machining tool would cut away the defect, then the additive manufacturing tool would print the material back, the machining tool would then finish the blade to the surface finish requirement and finally, the non-destructive inspection tool would analyse and validate the repair.
This may sound a little far-fetched, but this is exactly the “dream big” vision that aircraft maintenance engineers are working towards making a reality. It is not just aerospace maintenance leaders driving this vision, there are use cases across multiple industries. I can see the use of these machines on ships, which sail in an environment making it very difficult to rush spares for broken components. The ship’s engineers could repair where possible using the machine, providing a complete or temporary fix and allow the ship to sail to the next port. 3D Scanning, Hybrid Manufacturing and Non-Destructive testing have seen huge technological advances in the last decade, with large R&D investment in all areas driven by customer demand. It is only a matter of time before the technologies can be combined and then made portable enough for in-situ repairs.
So why will this disrupt the supply chain?
Currently, there are countless warehouses located all over the world holding spare parts for high use and safety critical components, not just transportation industries but also medical, agriculture, defense, etc. We have already seen a number of companies looking to consolidate their stock holdings by investigating in a lean “print on demand” additive manufacturing model for spares, this service and thinking will mature over the next decade.
But Hybrid Manufacturing 2.0 goes further than this, it enables a repair at the source location, whether this is a military tank in the field or a mining machine 3km under the earth’s surface. I believe the technology will be sponsored and developed by two main industry areas, firstly those with a high cost of downtime, those on a servitised business model such as Aero and Gas turbine engines. Then secondly industries with severe access or location issues, such as Oil Rigs, Mining, Ships, Construction, etc. This disruptive innovation will be recognised when the industry sees a reduction in the footprint of maintenance and repair workshops, making significant operational savings, and components repaired in-position is a standard process.
(Note: Hybrid Manufacturing 2.0 is not an acknowledged industry phrase, I have used the term for the purpose of this article, in an effort to describe the next level of combined technologies).
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Paul Empringham, VP Research, PI – a CIO-led learning community for manufacturers. www.pi.tv