General Electric posted a cool video of jet engine fuel nozzles being fabricated–in one piece–with a 3-D printing process. Extensive data collection during the process is done for quality control purposes (they use the term “big data,” of which I am not overly fond.)
Welders have monitored weld pools for centuries with shaded glasses, listening to the “bacon sizzle” of the molten metal, and later using infrared sensors, cameras, and pyrometers. GE is collecting all this data, as well as information from sensors checking the mechanical stability of the 3-D printing machines and the laser beams, and feeding it into algorithms that reduce terabytes of raw data to megabytes of useful information.
It seems that certain skills, such as understanding what is happening to molten metal via direct sensory perception, are becoming less important in this manufacturing process…other skills, surely, are becoming more important. It would be both interesting and worthwhile for someone to perform a multi-decade analysis of the actual skill mix required to produce a particular product. For example, how does the set of skills that built the J-47 jet engine in the early 1950s compare with the set of skills for building the engines being produced today? Millions of words and trillions of pixels have been devoted..by academics, journalists, consultants, educators, and even the occasional practitioner…to talking about “jobs of the future,” but a high proportion of this writing and talking is of the hand-waving variety. It would be nice to see some serious historical (and quantitative) comparative research.
More on 3-D printing in today’s WSJ. Note that the Ford and Mattel examples are for 3-D printing of prototypes, not of actual customer products.