A Historic Phase Change in the Way We Build Things

Pavillion of a Chinese construction company at the 2015 World Expo in Milan / Photo by author

To understand the sea change currently happening in the world of manufacturing, it is important to look at the historical perspective. We can split history into the pre-industrial epoch, the time after the Industrial Revolution, and a new era, that we are currently entering.

Until the 19th century, the production of goods was a manual process. Even though craftsmen sometimes had simple machines at their disposal, each item was built by hand and became one individual, often unique, object.

This changed during the Industrial Revolution, which caused a dramatic shift to the manufacturing of large quantities of identical items. Many objects became standardized and the focus moved to the assembly of objects from as many off-the-shelf parts as possible, while trying to minimize the number of custom components and manual work. Engineers constantly strived to reduce complexity to bring down cost.

With the advent of Additive Manufacturing on an industrial level, we are adopting a new paradigm, where complex, highly customized objects are becoming the norm. A printer aggregates small pieces of matter according to a blueprint, indifferent to the simplicity or complexity of the instructions. The resulting object can almost be arbitrarily sophisticated with little impact on cost and manufacturing time.

3D printers were first used for applications like rapid prototyping, where fast turnaround times allowed designers to work iteratively. With the introduction of better materials and the increased sophistication of the output, printers started to be used in highly individualized end-product manufacturing, such as prosthetics.

This shift to Additive Manufacturing of end-use-parts is starting to give designers and engineers newfound freedom, to design objects that cannot be produced through traditional manufacturing. In these applications, the additive aspect of the printers is the key element to the production of completely enclosed parts or objects that use complex internal substructures to reduce weight or that contain functional elements. This transition is going to speed up in the coming years as printers will start to include multiple diverse materials and are able to incorporate the placing of electronics, sensors and actuators into the printed product. The results will be highly sophisticated objects with little or no assembly required.

With this phase change happening, the focus now shifts to the software side, which is the key element to enabling objects of significantly higher complexity.

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Lin Kayser is the CEO of Munich-based Hyperganic, where he and his team are reinventing how we design and engineer objects in an age of digital manufacturing and synthetic biology.

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This article was originally published on LinkedIn on April 22, 2018