Digital transformation encompasses many things but the essence of it is moving to a more digital, automated approach. In other words: based on data, lots of data. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is clearly part of the digital transformation of both manufacturing and supply chains but it is more than that. As in other aspects, AM is unique – it is more a consumer of data than a generator of data. For the moment. The more AM is used the more data it can generate – this data becomes especially useful if it is part of a digital supply chain or an even longer digital thread. But AM is also an enabler for sensors and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices. For example, the recently opened MX3D 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam (above, photo: Thea van den Heuven, and construction video below). This thing of beauty that has a lot of technology embedded in it. Sensors that monitor the foot traffic on it and can supply a lot of data on its use. How can AM help with these endeavors and what are the challenges that arise from the marriage of IoT and AM?
Bridge the Gap
The M3XD bridge is a good example as it is a significant construction in public use so must be able to pass a lot of regulatory scrutiny. The bridge lays across a canal in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, bridging the classic and the new in more ways than one. It has been 6 years in the making and has come across unforeseen problems including the physical site’s inability to conform with the proposed structure, requiring a reconstruction of the canal walls which set the timeline back by 2 years. The 3D printed structure was manufactured in parts in a workshop and then transported to the canal site (via a canal boat) and assembled on site. Within the structure, many sensors are embedded. These sensors are connected to a network that includes the bridge’s digital twin and data on the bridge condition and traffic on it is recorded on this network. This data can be important for better understanding and maintaining the urban infrastructure.
There are other infrastructures that can benefit from the combination of IoT (or IIoT – Industrial IoT) and AM and many of them use pipes. Therefore, start up Tri-D Dynamics set out to create a smart pipe that they call BytePipe which has IoT sensors embedded in it. How do you manufacture such a pipe? With the help of AM. Tri-D actually start with a standard pipe and retrofit it to include the sensors using subtractive and additive manufacturing technologies. The result is potentially a pipe that can report on the flow within it can close the loop and use the data generated in order to maintain and control the pipeline. For now, the initial BytePipe, slated to be released this year, will only offer tracking through the pipe’s supply chain, a way to digitize the physical supply chain.
And the Data?
One of the issues with these items is what about the data. In the case of the pipe – if the pipe is sold from Tri-D to an oil pipeline, for example, what part of the data generated by the sensor is Tri-D’s and and what part belongs to the oil pipeline? It seems quite clear that until the pipe is sold the data is Tri-D’s but what about after that? Perhaps Tri-D can offer better service to its customers (faster replacement availability, for example) if it had visibility into the continuation of the supply chain. On the other hand, this many reveal information the oil company deems proprietary such as the length of its pipeline or the volume flowing through it.
When it comes to consumer data it’s even trickier. The city of Amsterdam has given the MX3D bridge a 2 years’ license to be at this location – meaning that it is a temporary structure as it currently stands. The data gathering can help city planners but has raised questions about the citizens’ ownership of city data. More generally, who does the data belong to? At the moment the data is anonymous so the ethical questions are easier but what happens if the bridge can identify you (like passing through a toll booth with a subscription)? Is the fact that I went from point A to B my data or the data of the bridge that allowed me to do it?
These questions can be generalized for many other situations and the more digital the world becomes the more acute the challenge of managing privacy and data is going to get.
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