3D Printing Build Farms: The Rise of a Distributed Manufacturing Workforce

3D Printing Build Farms: The Rise of a Distributed Manufacturing Workforce

Jennifer Loy, James I. Novak
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 27
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4159-3.ch009
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The development of high-end, distributed, advanced manufacturing over the last decade has been a by-product of a push to foster new workforce capabilities, while building a market for industrial additive manufacturing (3D printing) machines. This trend has been complemented by a growing democratization in access to commercial platforms via the internet, and the ease of communication it allows between consumers and producers. New ways of distributed working in manufacturing are on the rise while mass production facilities in the Western world are in decline. As automation increasingly excludes the worker from assembly line production, the tools to regain control over manufacturing and commercial interaction are becoming more readily available. As a result, new working practices are emerging. This chapter discusses networked 3D printing build farms and their potential to reshape the future of work for distributed manufacturing. It highlights changes in infrastructure priorities and education for a digitally enabled maker society from an Australian perspective.
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Mass production has its roots in the uniformity introduced to meet the consistency required for the sale of products from a catalogue (Forty, 1986), and grew through the development of technology that supported mass manufacture over craft-based production. In the past, industrial designers were responsible for translating cultural trends, designing a product, then splitting the making of the product into components so that an individual was responsible for only a single stage of production. The designers were initially based in the manufacturing facility, where they would be familiar with the capabilities of the workers and provided working drawings to ensure consistency.

With the introduction of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) in the nineteen-eighties, and then Internet communication in the nineties, the separation of designer and manufacturer became more prevalent. The separation occurred not only through the development of independent design consultancies but also as manufacturers became more global in their operations. This working practise is enabled by digital platforms, which not only allow for verbal and written communication but increasingly, virtual and augmented reality communication tools. Three-dimensional (3D) computer modelling has generally superseded two-dimensional (2D) working drawings. While there are valid arguments that the designer based in a manufacturer, rather than in a consultancy, will have a better understanding of the production practices and capabilities in that particular factory setting, in reality (and with exceptions), where in-house designers are still employed, the design process has still become disconnected from the geographical place of manufacture. This disconnect allows an element of freedom for the company in terms of where the designers are based. In fact, with digital communication tools, it is increasingly possible for designers to work from home, anywhere in the world, and still be engaged with manufacturing.

One of the constraints in manufacturing has been catering for economies of scale, using production tooling. This tooling is frequently in the form of molds. Molds are expensive to produce and to offset the costs; manufacturers produce large numbers of the same part from each mold. The investment for a manufacturer in a mold is significant, and a single part must, therefore, be suitable for a broad market. The designer must design products that are generic enough to appeal to a wide range of consumers. This, in turn, requires an established market and supply chain to ensure that materials and hardware are available in quantity as required. For this to be efficient, the scale of production tends to be large, leading to centralised manufacturing and prohibiting viable entrepreneurship.

In contrast to the analogue processes of mass production, digital fabrication technology allows for computer-driven 2D and 3D cutting, with a part “revealed” as material is removed from a solid. It has been part of conventional manufacturing since the 1960s, ten years after the invention of computer numerically controlled cutting (CNC routing). Additive Manufacturing (AM) is also a digital fabrication technology. However, as the name suggests, material is added to produce a part, rather than removed from a solid. Neither technology requires a mold, meaning for both technologies that it is possible to create bespoke parts. This is a key capability for these technologies because their output depends on the time taken for the cutting head, or, in the case of AM, the print head or laser, to move across the part. Where excess material is removed in a 3D cutting action, the CNC router can be relatively slow. However, for 2D shapes the cutter is only following the critical cutting lines of an object, making part production quite fast. In additive manufacturing, the part is built in layers. Therefore, the speed of making the part is constrained by the speed of the print head and the size of the part. As printers have become more sophisticated, features such as multiple print heads or lasers have reduced print time, or increased part accuracy for the same print time.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Distributed Workforce: Geographically dispersed employees that work collectively utilising online systems and software.

Mass Production: Manufacturing of large quantities of standardised parts or products.

Gig Economy: Flexible, temporary and freelance employment offered through an online platform.

3D Printing: 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, refers to fabrication technologies that build parts in layers based on a 3D computer model.

3D Printing Build Farm: A networked collection of similar 3D printers controlled through a central system.

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