The term “lean production” has its roots in the manufacturing systems that Toyota introduced in the 1950s. These systems typically feature short storage times, small batch sizes, teamwork, and close relationships with suppliers. The idea is to boost productivity, improve the quality of the products, and make the production apparatus more flexible.
In the future, production systems could well rely on additive manufacturing processes. These are very different to conventional approaches like, say, milling a block of material into shape or using a casting mould. Additive manufacturing is all about tool-free, computer-based technologies. Using 3D data from CAD systems, the process makes objects by building up layers of material like plastic or metal. Examples of these technologies are stereolithography, which uses a UV laser to create and solidify layers of photopolymer, and selective laser melting, which uses a laser to build an object layer by layer from a metal powder bed. These systems are likely to make up an increasingly large share of future production processes. They reduce the amount of material that goes to waste during manufacturing, and offer a wealth of possibilities for designing geometric objects. The technology can, for instance, produce parts that have any number of curved channels running through them, or can fill whole sections of an object with a honeycomb structure to make it as lightweight as possible. One area where additive technology is already being used on a large scale is in dental restorations (specifically, the metal substructures for false teeth).
At the moment the process is mostly limited to one-off production, which means it only makes individual or very small batches of complex objects. But by 2020, versions of the technology will be available that can work continuously and therefore also produce larger batches. The range of materials that can be used in additive manufacturing is growing all the time, and the scope for combining different materials will continue to expand in future.
Claus Aumund-Kopp, Project Manager for powder technology and additive manufacturing at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM), answered this question.