Digital Manufacturing Innovation – where disruption becomes reality.

By Protolabs

Digital Manufacturing Innovation – where disruption becomes reality.

Today the first 3D printed artificial heart prototypes exist, smart factories are using augmented reality andreal parts are combined and visualised with a virtual part. Digital manufacturing is a place for disruptors and innovators, here we take a look at some of the hottest innovation trends.

Innovation within digital manufacturing is moving fast. The companies that adapt and evolve are the ones to stay ahead.

As we journey towards the 5th industrial revolution, innovation and development of connected systems have gained traction.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is a  technology that has existed as a concept since 1945 but wasn’t realised until nearly 40 years later. Since the first documented 3D printer in early 80’s Japan, 3D printing has come a long way. A relative newbie in the field of digital manufacturing in comparison to its injection moulding and CNC counterparts. Industries that were initially more reserved are finally catching on to how powerful additive manufacturing can be in the production of parts.

In the medical industry, 3D printing has jumped from strength to strength. From implants and prosthetics to prototypes of entire organs, such as the heart, current experiments have focused on applying additional tissue from cellulose and organic materials to existing structures, which are then suitable for implantation, resulting in functional tissue. This could mean that in the future surgeons could 3D print organs, such as hearts, which they could then transplant into the human body.

It’s not only the medical industry that is seeing such exciting innovation. 3D printing is helping the aerospace industry produce lighter parts, with no waste. Primarily limited to smaller parts, there is research being conducted into entire 3D printed frames. It’s not just planes, let’s talk space too! There are hopes that in the future 3D printers could be transported into space, onto Mars perhaps, where they wouldn’t be limited by launch vehicle sizes. Parts could then be 3D printed in space. There have even been experiments into 3D printing moon dust! (Well, simulants of).

There is so much more and with the number of 3D printing processes increasing all the time. Who knows what innovations the future may hold.

Robotics & Artificial Intelligence (AI)

First of all, robotics and AI are not the same. In fact, they complement each other perfectly. Think of robotics as the body and AI as the brain. The AI is the programming, which tells the robot what to do.
AI is a hot topic in most industries at the moment. In fact, AI start-ups are some of the most sought after. In manufacturing, companies use AI to detect faults in machines or products and to make production decisions with every stage monitored by sensors.

When it comes to robotics, using them within a manufacturing line has become increasingly popular. At present, key research is looking into flexible grasp for the manufacturing line. As you can imagine, these sorts of robots could be incredibly useful in a manufacturing environment; especially in environments that are dangerous for humans

This is not the only way in which AI is being utilised in the manufacturing world. It can also help with quality assessment. It’s difficult to determine internal problems of a part without timely testing. AI can identify minor faults in machinery or the product itself, so the designer can address the issue before it becomes a major problem.

Then there’s AI solutions with machine learning (ML)-powered predictive tools that anticipate when equipment will need maintenance, through IoT and embedded sensors..

AI can also be effectively used for demand and price forecasting, using predictive analysis combined with human intelligence. Other uses include inventory management, customer care, and personalisation of products and services.

Cloud Computing

Along with other advanced techs such as AI, IoT and blockchain, cloud computing is a key driver of the 4th industrial revolution. These techs are blurring the lines between the physical and digital world.

Cloud computing technologies are key for emerging companies and smaller companies. Enabling an agile approach to manufacturing, promising an increase in scalability and increased transparency, cloud computing can also reduce cost. Investing in cloud solutions is typically lower cost than traditional on-site systems, as there is no upfront, expensive hardware or IT support required.

Smart Factory

A smart factory is a fully connected and integrated digital environment that optimises the end-to-end manufacturing process.  Within this environment cyber-physical systems monitor the physical processes of the factory, they provide analysis and automate or support the controls and decision-making.

Smart factories can benefit from better, faster and more cost-effective production of goods, on-demand availability, customised parts, complete traceability, sustainable models (reuse, repair and repurpose), making them a trusted partner in a supply chain.

Key features include, digital twins, big data, advanced robotics, elimination of workplace inefficiencies and communication across the supply chain.

Augmented Reality

Different from virtual reality, augmented reality combines virtual with the real world, rather than being completely virtual.

Augmented reality can support manufacturing in several ways. It can be used to find flaws in product design, that might normally take weeks of analysing data. Its proved massively useful for increasing safety, being used to digitally simulate production processes, and potentially identify dangerous manoeuvres in advance.

It can also be incredibly useful in machine maintenance. A virtual image can be projected onto the machine that then instructs an operator on what needs to be done to repair a part. This can be particularly useful when specialist knowledge is needed from across the globe - where an expert can simulate the actions to remotely guide an employee who is wearing AR glasses.

Engineers at Siemens have been developing AR technology specifically for use within manufacturing; superimposing virtual elements constructed via CAD and other data onto views of real objects, which are visualised on mobile devices, desktop computers etc.

Key uses of AR in industrial settings include, training, asset identification, knowledge transfer and process design and equipment layout.


Blockchain powered solutions can seamlessly aggregate all information to deliver significant value for industrial companies. It unlocks the full potential of other advanced technologies such as AR, IoT and 3DP.

Blockchain is digital information stored in blocks on a public database. It literally is a blockchain – digital information is the block, the public database is the chain.

It can increase visibility across all areas of a process, from suppliers, strategic sourcing, procurement, and supplier quality to shop floor operations, which include machine level monitoring.

Advantages of opting for a blockchain service include, improved traceability, increased visibility, improvement of customer satisfaction, faster product delivery and reduced supply chain costs.

Digital Twins

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-world product or asset. They can be used to improve system design, test new products, monitor and prevent maintenance and manage the life cycle of an asset.

To develop a digital twin there are certain requirements; CAD/ 3D modelling tools, IoT/ connected devices, game engines and version control. They can be used to predict maintenance on equipment, reducing machine down time. They can help get a better idea of a product and how end users will use them by seeing it in real time. They’re also good for manufacturing process optimisation, enhancing product traceability processes, testing, validating, increasing the level of integration between unconnected systems and remote troubleshooting of equipment.



As we move closer to the 5th industrial revolutions, with harmonious human/machine collaborations, business will become more connected. One giant blockchain will connect all parts of a product – so for example if your phone breaks down a notification is automatically sent to start a chain to fix it without you even having to leave the house.

We are entering a world where science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact.  For the disruptors and start-ups the opportunities are immense.