Transforming manufacturing and may bring U.S. jobs back

In the world of motorcycle racing, Ducati is a name that evokes a passion for well-made motor bikes that satisfy style and racing. Winner of many World Superbike racing titles, this Italian company designs and exports a racing off-road line in America called the Scrambler – a lightweight answer to the British Triumph. The Ducati 1199 Superbike targets millennial enthusiasts in Europe and Asian markets who want a more urban bike, retro cool and entry level priced, while their new Desert Sled gives the U.S. off-roader a similar lower cost model but well stripped down bike with sufficient torque for a ‘wheelie’.  (Desert Sled-shows clever U.S. marketing; the famed California Barstow to Vegas race has long referred to off-road racers as “desert sleds.”)

Ducati, known for producing upscale bikes, has found a sweet spot in the entry level millennial market both here and abroad. Ducati’s success in this new product line means it devotes nearly half of its total manufacturing operation now to these more affordably priced bikes.  In 2015, they enjoyed a 22% increase in overall revenue from 2014, and an operating profit of 54 million euros, up 12.5% from 2014. So what does this have to do with 3-D printing?  This new technology helped Ducati get there.  Like many manufacturers whose engineers are now relying on 3-D printing capability to go from design sketch to first model, 3- D printing methods are entering in, saving time and giving an early fix to possible design issues.

To hear Ducati engineer Jacky Wan tell it, 3-D printing not only helped him keep to a tight deadline, it also helped him make a flawless first model that pointed out  possible design problems that could be readily fixed from the hands-on 3-D process. Using the Ultimaker 3-D FDM printer, he was able to produce a beautiful model, the size of a banana, but correctly assembled to scale. It was a complex  assembly but the final result not only showed what the 1199 Ducati Superbike would look like, in the process Jacky was able to enhance its design and fix potential flaws, and all on a short deadline. In printing, assembling and solving issues piece by piece, he was able to get all the interconnecting pieces eventually to work.  3D helped in the full process from design, creation, software functions and timing issues and then to printing and assembling all the parts.

As Jacky describes the process, “Progression happened in a natural way since each piece inevitably connects to the next with a dictated flow of design.” It was actually a time saver, since he was able to sand down and file parts that needed to be fixed or fitted better, and he claims he never had to ‘reprint.’  His statement as to the efficiency and efficacy of 3-D printing, — promises it   will be a game changer for manufacturers on a larger scale.

When Chuck Hull developed the first 3-D printer in 1983, it used a ‘stereolithographic’ process that allowed a product or unit to go from design to computer screen to an actual printed 3 dimensional object. The method took layers of material, printing them out, and building them up on top of each other to become a solid piece. Engineers envisioned someday consumers could download a design from the internet, and print it in the comfort of their own home. Also called ‘additive manufacturing,’ the technology continues to evolve. While most 3-D printing uses the technology of layering (additive) to produce the final object, new methods and materials are creating new technological advances.

Begun first as an aid to engineers in creating and testing models or prototypes they dream up, manufacturers are now embracing the 3D printing process as a breakthrough to their bottom line. What may have started as a tech innovation is now a business solution. 3D is no longer seen as a gimmick or fad, and it may just well be the future of manufacturing, revolutionizing end-use production.

Engineers at large companies like Singapore Airlines are already using the innovation of 3-D printing. Singapore may not yet be ‘printing’ out parts that make a plane fly, but it is for the simple things like meal trays and luggage compartment items. Singapore Airlines credits the successful uptick in profits to quick turnaround time in printing these needed parts and pieces that often stocked inventory can’t solve. Printing aircraft parts on demand is a big plus to the bottom line in solving issues of time, transportation and labor costs. “Passengers don’t realize that some of the air ducting is already 3-D printed. They also don’t see the hidden cable harnesses which are 3-D printed. But very soon the surround of their entertainment system will be 3-D printed,” according to Andy Middleton, President of EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa region) at Stratasys, a top-tier 3-D printing manufacturer.

For the car dealer who needs a personalized or missing car part to move a car off the showroom floor, this item could be printed down the street and rushed to site in less than an hour. And in the health care field, manufacturing high tech hearing aids or Orthodontic braces are already a reality. A doctor’s assistant can download the design, send it to a dedicated 3-D printer and have the finished product delivered back to the office, and “installed” while the patient or customer waits. MIT and Steelcase just collaborated in developing a printing method in which a substance can be used and 3-D printed that actually imitates human cartilage. So a fast turnaround time for the patient who waits for their hearing aid, may soon be true for their heart valve. Recently doctors at the University of Michigan implanted 3-D printed stents in a little boy’s lung!

We hear about how consumers will soon print household needs from broken garden hose nozzles to a garlic press, but the real story is how U.S. manufacturing might begin to come back from its reliance on big factories overseas. Huge manufacturing operations now in Asia, India and Mexico may slowly return, piece by piece, into more localized functions here at home, using 3- D printing to handle some tasks. The day is fast approaching where manufacturing production time can be shortened and transportation costs brought way down by using 3-D print capabilities closer to home, making the factory floor a thing of the past. After all it was mostly high labor costs that sent manufacturing abroad in the first place. From aerospace, automotive, retail, and tech (think iPhones) the factory abroad may have once allowed for lower labor costs but then found its own set of (costly) problems and issues.  Newsweek’s tech editor Kevin Maney imagines (albeit tongue in cheek) that 3- D printing could “… make manufacturing in America great again.”  The innovation 3- D printing offers could make the pendulum swing back in our direction, solving our economic malaise and unemployment, and taking us from a trade issue to a tech issue.

We may not bring jobs back to the factory floor, as in the days of Henry Ford, but innovation and technology could find a way to re imagine a new economy in which manufacturers play a bigger role. There is much dispute as to whether or not Henry Ford made the famous comment: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Still, the promise of innovation does just that; it fulfills its promise often only after process and production takes place.  Outcomes are sometimes not known until then. So whether manufacturing cars, motorbikes – or building a better mousetrap—3- D printing just might help the world beat a path to your door. Or, at the very least, you can design a better one and print it yourself!