Robots, multidimensional printers, sci-fi-style polymers and other new technologies are beginning to shape the future of manufacturing. Google is testing self-driving cars. Scientists are working on bio-printers that might create usable human tissue. And traditional manufacturing workers are losing jobs as high-tech automated processes replace familiar assembly lines.
It’s all part of a new era in manufacturing, with possibilities for expanding what U.S. manufacturers can produce, the role of the worker and the types 0f products consumers can use in their daily lives.
A major player in the new world is something called additive manufacturing — better known as 3-D printing, because the process involves putting plastics, metals or some other material into a device that works much like a printer. The device extrudes a thin layer of the material onto a flat surface. Then, it extrudes another layer, then another, until it has built a three-dimensional object. One advantage: The precise addition of substances at any point ideally makes an object stronger or more flexible exactly where it needs to be stronger or more flexible.
“I think additive manufacturing in general is going to get bigger and more important,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of Autodesk, a developer of tools for computer-aided design.
It might sound futuristic, but 3-D printing is here: Some cutting-edge dentists are printing permanent crowns for damaged teeth. Japanese company FASOTEC is using MRI scans to give expectant mothers a 3-D model — instead of the familiar wedge-shaped ultrasound printout — of their developing fetuses. And doctors can take a patient’s CT scan and create a 3-D model of human bones to better plan the individual’s treatment.
As those examples show, a lot of this technology is aimed at the lucrative health-care market. “Looking 10 years out, I do believe that when you start to look at . . . the ultimate machine, it’s the human body,” said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing for Stratasys, which makes 3-D printers and supplies.
For now, developers are working on many levels. Autodesk’s flagship product, AutoCAD (CAD for computer-assisted design), is a professional 3-D software application primarily used by engineers to design anything from buildings to wind turbines. But the company also makes hobbyist-friendly software tools, such as 123D Design, which is free to download or use online or on an iPad. Offered in conjunction with 3-D printing, laser-cutting and other creative services, it gives amateur designers an opportunity to have their creations printed or sculpted into being.