Industry 4.0: The Print Edition

Industry 4.0: The Print Edition
SME Media April 2022
By Kip Hanson

Everyone likes to talk about Industry 4.0, but many struggle to define what it is, when it started and what it means to manufacturers. Some refer to it as the digitization of manufacturing. Others describe it as the growth of artificial intelligence and cyber-physical systems, while still others point to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data and machine analytics as the primary components of the fourth industrial revolution.

Digital smarts

None of them are wrong, but then again, Industry 4.0 is much more than that listed so far. Additional components include augmented and virtual reality, advanced software simulation, mobile devices, cloud computing and other technologies that serve to make manufacturing more efficient, transparent and profitable. As for when it started, look no further than 3D printing, the invention of which arguably marks the birth of Industry 4.0 and whose capabilities continue to alter manufacturing in some very fundamental ways.

Zach Murphree is the vice president of global sales and business development at Velo3D, an additive manufacturing solutions provider in Campbell, Calif. He enjoys talking about Industry 4.0, largely becauseit means different things to different people, but suggested that many of its core tenets aren’t being met by some current additive equipment.

“Much of the Industry 4.0 movement revolves around automation and connected, smart machines that help to make the manufacturing process more scalable and efficient,” Murphree said. “Anyone shopping for a 3D printer these days should place these objectives high on their requirements list.”

Unfortunately, additive manufacturers attempting to develop an Industry 4.0 infrastructure often find themselves “patching together” disparate systems, he added. Integration here means taking off-the-shelf software and hardware components and attempting to piece them together.

Murphree uses print preparation software as an example; thanks to the AM industry’s rapid growth, many machine builders have been forced to leave this and other important functions to third-party developers. According to Murphree, this hinders scalability and throughput.

“This is just one illustration of why it’s so important to have the required intelligence and ‘digital smarts’ built into a 3D printer and its supporting software from the very beginning, so that everything functions as one coherent platform,” he said. “This allows users to be more productive. And the ability to take the data stream produced during the preprint process and use it throughout the rest of the build promotes stable, efficient and predictable manufacturing. That’s the essence of a smart system.”

Focusing on the workflow

Shell Haffner’s thoughts on Industry 4.0 are quite similar to those of his counterpart at Velo3D. The vice president of product management for 3D Systems Inc., Rock Hill, S.C., he defines it as manufacturing that’s connected, flexible and intelligent, and recommended that anyone looking to compete in this market should find a system that checks these boxes. What he disagrees with is the method by which some companies make their equipment Industry 4.0-capable.

“Consider connectivity,” Haffner noted.  “We and most other AM system providers have done a good job of making our products interoperable with third-party software systems. The area of concern, then, is how do you wrap that up into a coherent workflow—one that has the business rules needed to assure that the parts coming out the back end are reliable, and that you’re producing them in the most effective manner possible?”

3D Systems’ answer was its recent acquisition of Oqton, a cloud-based manufacturing operating system said to “automate the end-to-end workflow across and beyond the production floor.” Haffner described it as an interface to ERP, MES, PLM and similar enterprise-level systems, as well as a way to connect with competing AM software from companies such as Materialise Magics and Autodesk Netfabb. It will also support integration with a range of post-processing solutions, whether it’s powder removal, dying and vapor smoothing or finish machining.

“No one company has it all, and we don’t pretend to,” he said. “Oqton will give manufacturers greater flexibility, the ability to develop robust workflows, and the freedom to use whatever tools they wish, even if they’re not ours. All are important components of Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing in general.”

All in on digital

When asked to define Industry 4.0, Mathieu Perennou of Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence offered a simple yet profound statement.

“It’s the era of data,” said Perennou, director of strategy and global business development for additive manufacturing at North Kingstown, R.I.-based Hexagon. “Manufacturers everywhere are looking for ways to gather information from their various machine tools and software systems and leverage it to improve their processes. We provide many of the tools needed to do exactly that.”

Additive manufacturing is a perfect fit for Industry 4.0, Perennou added. Where conventional machining, sheet metal fabrication and plastic injection molding processes have their roots in analog technologies, 3D printing has always been completely digital. Parts begin as a CAD file, are optimized, oriented, nested, and sliced in a software system—and often more than one—then sent to a piece of equipment with no cutting tools and relatively few moving parts.

Once the build begins, the process is closely monitored. Operational data is collected and, if desired, incorporated or at least linked to the part’s digital twin. There’s never a blueprint; there’s no opportunity for manual programming as on a CNC lathe or machining center; and even though the part might later be sent to one of these machine tools for additional processing, the workflow remains, or should remain, entirely connected via a digital thread. As Velo3D’s Murphree stated, this is the essence of Industry 4.0.

With a foundation in metrology equipment, Hexagon is well-equipped to “close the loop” by feeding inspection data and CT (computerized tomography) scanning back to the digital twin. This allows manufacturers to compare the as-designed model to the as-built results and make the process adjustments needed to synchronize the two. It also paints a more complete picture of part quality.

“Here’s another important aspect of Industry 4.0, in that you need to cover the complete manufacturing chain—and this includes performance data from the field,” Perennou said. “You want to leverage and capitalize on what you see when the part is in use, particularly if there’s a failure. At that point, you can begin asking questions about why it failed: When and where was it printed? Were there any anomalies during the build process? What was the material lot? By tying all of this back to the digital twin, you can then understand what went wrong, learn from that and improve. Here’s why it’s so critical that manufacturers employ an integrated, end-to-end AM solution.”

Taming the maelstrom

Integrated manufacturing solutions like those just described are more than just another aspect of the cluttered Industry 4.0 landscape. They’re also much more than a tool for greater efficiency, reduced costs, or ease of use. As Ashley Eckhoff explained, holistic workflows are essential to consistency in the manufacturing process and a primary driver of predictable part quality, traceability, and ultimately, product certification, a viewpoint that Hexagon’s Perennou surely shares.

Eckhoff is the marketing manager for the engineering group concentrating on Additive Manufacturing at Siemens Digital Industries Software, Plano, Texas. He pointed out that this last point is especially true for metal 3D printing, where internal part stress, distortion, and even build failures are an unfortunate part of doing business. The solution to these problems, he said, is to develop an effective and repeatable “print recipe” and then follow it to the letter. “In the aerospace and medical industries, any process must be both well-managed and controlled. If not, there’s little chance it will receive certification.”

The wide variety of AM technologies, equipment brands, and raw materials only adds to these challenges. “Because of this, many manufacturers select a machine vendor and stick with that brand until forced to do something different,” Eckhoff said. “Perhaps that vendor doesn’t print the necessary material or achieve the desired part accuracy—whatever the reason, companies go through a huge learning curve to adopt a new machine from a new vendor. They basically have to start at ground zero every time. It would be nice if additive manufacturing was like printing a Word document, where you really don’t care whether the printer is a Canon or an HP or a Dell. But there are simply way too many variables, making any type of production AM a very complicated affair.”

Then there’s the other elephant in the Industry 4.0 room: automation. Eckhoff and others listed a number of post-processing steps that can be automated to save time.

These range from depowdering and support removal to the tending of CNC equipment for finish machining. As noted earlier, each of these secondary operations carries with it numerous integration considerations, as well as the opportunity to automate the exchange of part data and work instructions needed to perform such tasks. Doing so, Eckhoff said, increases capacity while reducing the chance of error. “That’s why Siemens has deep experience with vendors in all of these areas and can therefore support whatever manufacturers need to get the job done.”

Lifting the rug

David Alatorre can offer plenty of advice on this last subject. The chief technology officer at Rivelin Robotics, a U.K.-based startup firm specializing in AM automation, he noted that what happens once parts leave the build chamber is sometimes the most difficult part of additive manufacturing and is too often swept under the rug. “Particularly with metal parts, there are all these intricate support structures to remove and undesirable surface finishes that require smoothing,” he said. “Currently, these operations are almost entirely manual.”

Rivelin Robotics hopes to change this paradigm with what Alatorre described as “off-the-shelf industrial robotic arms equipped with advanced sensing capabilities to address these tasks.”

As explained earlier, 3D printed metal parts are subject to thermal distortion and geometric variability. This makes automated post-processing on a CNC machining center with its fixed toolpaths challenging. But by scanning each workpiece and then “fitting” the results into a digital representation of the workpiece, Rivelin is able to generate robotic instructions in real time, thus replicating the human adaptability and perception needed to account for AM part variability.

“Robotics has come a long way in the last 20 years, and so the concept of rigid automation with a sequence of pre-planned movements like you see in automotive factories is outdated,” Alatorre said. “Like a lot of people, we’re very excited to see where the industry is going.”