Top tech to watch in manufacturing. By Gordon Styles

There is constant buzz around the manufacturing industry when it comes to which technologies will impact its future and change how products are made. With pressure to become faster, better and leaner, manufacturers are exploring all available options to gain even the slightest competitive advantage. At times, it’s hard to cut through the noise to determine which new ideas will be truly impactful, but it’s fun to try anyway. Let’s look at some of the cutting-edge advancements and materials grabbing the attention of the manufacturing industry.

Exoskeletons and Assistive Devices
Manufacturers, along with many businesses and organizations, are exploring advanced powered and unpowered exoskeletons to enhance mobility, increase strength and protect against fatigue and injury in a variety of conditions. A concept that seemingly is straight out of sci-fi, exoskeleton technology has the potential to augment the abilities of a manufacturer’s workforce to increase productivity.

Originally when the concept of exoskeletons emerged, the default image most people had in their minds was a full body powered suit that would strengthen nearly every part of a worker’s body, and some companies are still working to perfect this concept. However, many developers have chosen to pursue the development of smaller and more specialized exoskeletons that can help with specific, repetitive tasks.

The most common exoskeleton technologies currently being embraced are tool-holding and bracing technologies, chair less chairs, back support structures or supernumerary robotics. Both unpowered and powered versions of these technologies are available, which stabilize joints and reduce strain from tedious manual labor.

Ceramic 3D Printing
Ceramic 3D printing is gaining a lot of attention. In the past, ceramic was not viewed as a viable 3D printing material due to its high melting point. Companies are finding solutions for this problem. Already Xjet of Israel is getting a lot of positive press from their NanoParticleJetting (NPJ) technology. This uses nanoparticles of metal or ceramic suspended in a non-volatile liquid printing matrix. The liquid is then sprayed in micro-dots for high-resolution printing. After sintering, the liquid is baked off, leaving the base substrate behind. There is far less shrinkage with this process, so parts are strong and feature-rich. How fast or reliable these systems are in a production environment remains to be seen, yet it’s fascinating to bear witness to the number of innovative developers out there who are finding new ways to solve these technical problems.

The applications for ceramic 3D printing are extremely varied. The US army is researching ceramic 3D printing for the production of body armor and there is a huge market for medical and dental ceramics for this technology to tap into. The potential of this technology has led to companies racing to develop and release ceramic 3D printing resin and materials.

On the research front of this technology, the City University of Hong Kong is claiming to have successfully developed the first 4D printing process for ceramics. This is the creation of 3D printed objects that can change over time (the fourth dimension). The objects reshape over time due to an external force. This can be a temperature, a magnetic field or mechanical forces.

Laser Miniaturization
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it has created a way to shrink objects to nanoscale using a laser. The system produces 3D structures that are one thousandth the size of the originals. According to MIT News, “researchers can create any shape and structure they want by patterning a polymer scaffold with a laser. After attaching other useful materials to the scaffold, they shrink it, generating structures one thousandth the volume of the original.”

The method they are using is being referred to as implosion fabrication. Imagine being able to make parts smaller than what can be viewed with a microscope and the implications this could have for the medical and robotics fields. This proves that one of the next frontiers for manufacturers is the race to small. The research around this methodology was only recently unveiled so there are many questions surrounding its practicality. Even so, the progress that has been made and the possibilities are exciting – an emerging technology worth watching.

In five to ten years, everything will have graphene in it. Graphene’s structure consists of a single layer of tightly bound atoms that are in a hexagonal lattice – think a honeycomb. It’s being touted as the thinnest substance ever made, yet it has a very high tensile strength. The tight atomic structure of graphene contributes to better conductivity. It has the potential to create more efficient batteries and charging technologies, making it ideal for the growing electric vehicles and electronics industries. It’s also been mentioned as a key ingredient for Wi-Fi receivers, medical implants, water filtration, and more.

The downside of graphene has always been that it can only be produced in tiny batches through a process that is not very economical or fast. Within the past year, companies and research organizations have started to announce their progress toward reaching the holy grail of graphene mass production. No clear winner has emerged, but once they do, expect graphene to take off as a material of choice for many major industries around the world.

While some of these technologies could take years to become fully viable, the innovation around the manufacturing industry cannot be denied. This is just a short list of the top tech to watch over the next year. However, given the nature of innovation, any of these new developments could be displaced at any given moment by the next disruptive technology.

Gordon Styles is President and CEO of Star Rapid, a global rapid prototyping, rapid tooling and low-volume manufacturer. The company focuses on rapid prototyping, CNC machining, metal 3D printing, injection molding, pressure die casting, vacuum casting and a wide range of finishing services. Offering competitive prices and short lead times, Star Rapid places special emphasis on producing accurate and high-quality products and parts for its customers.