If man is to conquer Mars or any other planet, we will need buildings and structures to protect from extreme temperatures, radiation and micrometeorites.
One problem. Shipping cement or other heavy materials on a rocket is neither practical cost effective.
For astronauts at NASA, help is at hand. Engineers at the US agency’s Swamp Works Innovation Lab are developing a solution using 3D printing or ‘additive manufacturing’ to create structures for use on other planets using natural resources found on that planet’s surface. Using additive manufacturing technology combined with advancements in material science, structures are being sustainably built using a combination of local materials and light-weight recycled products. By mixing small amounts of plastic waste with lunar or Martian regolith similar to dirt and rock found in desert climates on earth, a cement like structure is formed and composited into place with robotic precision.
Whilst this is good for space dwellers, such technologies have application on earth. Plastic pollution could be recycled to sustainable 3D printed streets, sidewalks, playgrounds and buildings.
3D printing is not the only new technology around. In the US, General Motors has used generative design (see below) to redesign car seat brackets which are 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger compared with the original part and which have consolidated eight 3D components into one 3D printed part.
Welcome to the new world of manufacturing. A world where emerging technologies are used to deliver better products and to produce these more efficiently.
In Australia, manufacturing matters. Throughout calendar 2018, ABS data indicates that the sector contributed $104.9 billion toward the national economy on a gross value added basis – accounting for approximately 5.8 percent of gross domestic product. Between November and February, manufacturing employed 857,100 Australians. None of this includes the indirect effects of industries which provide goods and services to Aussie manufacturing plants or those industries which rely upon manufacturing output.
For construction specifically, a vibrant local manufacturing sector is critical. Generally speaking, goods purchased from reputable Australian manufacturers are fit for purpose and meet Australian standards and NCC requirements. The ability to source locally as well as overseas adds to competition and choice. In project management, the availability of local materials with faster lead times allows for important flexibility. Reliance on overseas product would make Australian construction hostage to vagaries of international trade. To embrace prefabrication, a dynamic local manufacturing base is needed.
Further, the sector is being challenged. Over the past ten years, Australia’s manufacturing output (gross value added) has shrunk 11.4 percent from $116.9 billion in calendar 2008 to $104.9 billion last year. In the ten years to February 2019, the industry slashed almost 150,000 jobs (ABS data).
That raises questions about how manufacturers can use technology to position themselves to thrive in a world of competition.
For answers, Sourceable spoke with Rod Hunt, Customer Strategy and Innovation Leader at Autodesk, which produces software used in manufacturing applications such as computer aided design (CAD), computer aided manufacturing (CAM) and computer aided engineering (CAE).
Hunt says manufacturing’s importance should not be underestimated, especially as we move toward industrialised construction where homes are manufactured offsite and brought onsite for assembly.
He says manufacturing faces challenges in how to remain competitive in light of cheap imports and distance from major export markets. This he says, creates a need to innovate in order to address market needs which are currently not being met, to stay ahead of competition and to separate ourselves from global competitors.
On technology, he says opportunities are emerging from artificial intelligence, robotics, generative design and connected data.
A key theme is generative design – a process where design alternatives are generated by software which takes input from human designers and engineers in respect of design objectives, desired materials and manufacturing methods and budget constraints.
An example can be seen through General Motors’ seat bracket referred to above. In that case, engineers set parameters such as requirements for connection points, strength and mass. Based on these, the software produced more than 150 valid design options. The team then zeroed in on a new design whose organic structure was such that it could not have been imagined by any human scientist or engineer. As mentioned above, the design is stronger, lighter and involves only a singular 3D printed part.
Hunt says such as approach offers advantages.
First, it helps to eliminate any preconceptions which may affect human engineers and offers a view on how parts should be made by looking rather at the function which the part in question has to perform along with optimal design alternatives in light of that function.
As well, such an approach helps to identify alternatives for manufacturing and assembly. These could include additive manufacturing, 3D printing or a 3D or 5D machining centre.
Next, there is additive manufacturing or 3D printing.
This Hunt says, is sometimes misunderstood as manufacturers fear they cannot use this if they are unable to 3D print all of their parts. Whilst this might be the case, Hunt says it is important to consider how 3D printing might be incorporated into their manufacturing processes. One Autodesk customer 3D prints their jigs and fixtures rather than manufacturing these out of steel. This enables them to manipulate and control what they print and also to place the part in the optimal position for the operation they are set to perform. The new process is also quicker and allows for faster changes of production line runs.
Third, there is artificial intelligence, otherwise known as machine learning.
This, Hunt says, will help in several areas. As AI advances, greater machine intelligence will help unlock further opportunities for generative design. Such advances could also pave the way for more expansive use of robotics as robots become more ‘intelligent’ and are themselves able to discern better manufacturing processes.
On robotics, Hunt says these will also impact construction. He envisages a day in home building where robots rather than bricklayers and tradespeople will be sent to sites. The robot will be tasked with working out how to print the house in the most efficient way and will work day and night to get this done.
He says many Autodesk customers are working on these types of applications.
Whilst many fear robots will replace humans, Hunt says robots will primarily perform mundane tasks and enable human capital to be redeployed into intelligent decision making roles.
Finally, Hunt says technology is enabling data to be more easily shared both internally and within the supply chain. He says this is imperative as greater information flows help to move products more quickly and to unlock innovation. The best person to solve a problem might not be within your firm but rather somebody in Sweden, India or the US, he says. The ability to connect into this can help to spur new ideas.
According to Hunt, the end of the automotive era saw a tipping point in manufacturing as many good companies folded yet others transitioned their operations and embraced new technologies. Many who once made auto parts are now doing completely different things and are more successful now compared with what had been the case previously.
He advises those considering change to remain abreast of new technologies and think about how these can be applied in their operations.
He says the time to act is now.
“If they (manufacturers) are considering making a change, adopting a new technology or taking something on, they’ve really got to get out and get in front of this,” Hunt said.
“If they are not doing it, then someone else will and they will find themselves on the back foot with their competitors.”