Earlier this year, Wohlers Associates, Inc. published its annual report with current figures for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. The report showed a surprising expansion of 7.50%, upwards of $12.80 billion in 2020, despite the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Growth was way down in previous years, but with many other industries struggling to survive and revive from global lockdowns, the trend still looks positive. The report also indicated growth in diversity of application in areas that could have dramatic benefits for humankind.
Why then is there a neo-Luddite movement that is so opposed to this new technology? Should we be taking that step back we all need sometimes and question where these developments are taking us? Or should we just embrace these astounding technologies?
As the industrial revolution in Great Britain marched on into the early 19th century, workers in the textile manufacturing industries became alarmed as machinery threatened their jobs. Fears that machines would make them redundant led workers to form a secret oath-based organization dedicated to stopping this advance of industrialization. The society, known as the Luddites, smashed up machinery, caused disturbances, and even physically attacked factory owners to hold back inevitable progress.
They may have been shortsighted (and their methods unacceptable) but the fears of these workers were real. These workers had no trade unions or social security benefits to assist them were they to become unemployed. They and their families could face destitution. The sad fact was that they were playing King Canute, who in legend tried to hold back the waves. The industrial age rushed on regardless. Even so, their stance – in time – led to social changes, and the revolution they feared brought benefits to their children and grandchildren.
There are obvious parallels with the rapid advancements in our current technological age. AM may threaten the employment of many workers but they bring potentially enormous benefits. The neo-Luddites may try to halt the progression but they are unlikely to stop it. Still, they may help balance the disadvantages, echoing the pattern of the earlier industrial age.
AM is now thought of as almost synonymous with 3-D printing, a technological advancement that utilizes digital processes to create and recreate lighter, stronger parts and systems. 3-D scanners employing computer-aided design (CAD) software continue to improve their ability to produce complex geometric shapes by way of a layer-by-layer technique that builds up material into the desired object. The benefits are manifold and many industries now employ the technique. Multiple parts can be created rapidly and accurately without the need for a large physical workforce. Here is the point of argument for Luddism.
For investors, following the general trend in manufacturing of smaller companies gaining traction over long-establish market giants, AM is at the moment on an upward trajectory. Wohlers in particular highlights applications in the food industry, electronics, and in the medical field. This latter category is perhaps the area that may convince neo-Luddites that these technological changes do not conflict so strongly with their own philosophies. These are applications of this new technology that have very clear benefits.
Whatever premise we start from, all we’re concerned about is our longevity and quality of life. AM and 3-D printing have made significant advances in the health sector that have created a positive impact in those two areas of anxiety. Education and surgical planning from diagnosis to treatment using living tissues created by this technique make for the areas most heavily investing in 3-D this year. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for these new technologies, yielding an almost overwhelming demand for medical equipment. AM has sped up supply production while other companies have used the technique to satisfy an increase in orders for personal protective equipment.
Research and development using AM have no limits. For example, it will ultimately end animal testing. The challenge to create organs without donors is ongoing and the technology is used in cancer research and treating epilepsy. Cranial reconstruction and joint replacements can be achieved far more rapidly with this new method. Commercially affordable prosthetics and implants are making a positive impact on poorer societies and individuals. The benefits are adding up, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is certainly hard for anyone to ignore them.
3-D printing is revolutionizing education, the preservation of cultural heritage, fashion and transportation industries, dentistry, and food. In the automotive industry, parts are being manufactured at a remarkable speed. This includes Formula 1 racing, where replacing something like a wing now takes only 10 days (instead of five weeks). AM can produce lightweight, strong parts for aerospace that now include parts for commercial jet engines. The tide of these technological advances cannot be stemmed.
Today, neo-Luddism converges with green philosophies in rejecting most modern technologies. Sustainability is an area of great concern for environmentalists. Manufacturing processes, unchanged for an era, are being revolutionized by additive 3-D methods, leading to greater efficiency and fewer required materials, equaling less waste. The capability to produce parts on-site rather than in factories miles away means reduced transport costs and carbon emissions. Lower costs enable poorer sections of society to benefit from advances in healthcare, education, and food manufacturing.
It may be possible (and wise) to take that step back and consider where technology is taking us. But as the world emerges from the pandemic, these innovations continue to arrive as a tidal bore that nothing is likely to stop.
Of course, there are problems and glitches to work through, and this will continue into 2021 and beyond. AMFG, a company aimed at providing additive manufacturing solutions, outlines a number of ongoing developments that will press AM into the next phase. Software must update and adapt more effectively to the needs of these new technologies. Software and hardware will have to integrate and connect more positively with the production floor. A broader use of AI technologies at all stages of AM also makes for a major trend for 2021.
Additive manufacturing allows greater freedom of design by creating layer-on-layer and encourages innovation. The pandemic raised awareness of the benefits of AM in areas such as sustainability, diversity, and in production accuracy (including improved distribution times and reduced costs). A 2020 survey of US manufacturing engineers across 7 top industries ranked AM highly for investment following the pandemic. That time has been slow in coming, but as 2021 progresses AM technology continues to overtake traditional manufacturing processes. Concerns for job losses in time may be compensated by more demand for new technology skills and innovators. Environmental warriors may need to change tack against this new age and embrace 3-D printing for its benefits to green issues and sustainability. Neo-Luddism may give way to the layer-on-layer revolution.
Rudly Raphael is the Founder and CEO of Eyes4Research. He has more than 15 years of experience in the market research industry, implementing primary and secondary research for a number of high profile clients. He’s a frequent blogger and has published a number of articles in various online journals, magazines, and other publications.
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