A key topic in this year‘s World Economic Forum (WEF) is the digital transformation of industries, expected to usher in the fourth industrial revolution which will change, among other things, the production methods and business models currently used in the majority of industrialised countries.
The merging of virtual data and production equipment will almost inevitably result in the proliferation of what many experts call “smart factories”, whereby production orders will be sent by the customer directly to the machine, and the production data will be transferred to the distribution partner in real time.
One of the major requirements in making Industry 4.0 a reality are machines capable of producing the desired components faster and more precisely than ever before, largely dispensing with prototypes and drastically diminishing the need for industrial dies and post-processing.
While the exact timescale of the imminent revolution is not yet clear, its beginnings can already be seen in the 3D printing technology. Developed in the 1980s, an individual unit can now be bought for less than 700 Swiss francs (or roughly 640 Euros).
So far, however, 3D printers have generally been used to make objects (mostly for illustrative purposes) from plastic, which significantly limits their use due to inferior mechanical properties and temperature stability, and necessitates the advancement of this promising technology beyond what is often described as “rapid prototyping”.
For the fourth industrial revolution to move into full swing, the technique used for 3D printing will have to go one step further: from rapid prototyping to advanced manufacturing, i.e., the production of lasting and functional metal and ceramic components with defined mechanical and thermal properties.
The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology is currently working on this topic with various research groups, focused on examining the optimised use of lasers, new types of alloys that this technology makes feasible for the first time, and using additive manufacturing to build new geometric forms that were not possible up to now with traditional production methods.