Recently, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with ETH Zurich and Fraunhofer IGCV, IPT and IAPT, released a report on the current state of additive manufacturing (AM) and its future. Their goal was to provide a realistic understanding of what AM can deliver today and why some are achieving that potential while others are not, as well as define the most probable near-term future production scenarios and what needs to happen to make those scenarios a reality. Pat Carey, Senior Vice President of Strategic Growth for Stratasys addresses this subject.
Q: What are some of the roadblocks along the value chain that AM can address?
A: According to Carey, additive technology helps in several areas of the value chain including local production, the iterative process, and bureaucracy.
“The ability to produce a part locally is a big deal, especially when we’re all dealing with parts on boats coming from China,” notes Carey.
Also, companies are shifting to a more personal, mass-production model that favors additive manufacturing over other manufacturing technologies.
“I’ve been working with a number of product design firms that were following a traditional process of product design,” notes Carey. “Prototypes were a challenge …. with all the supply chain issues. …. Many of them have switched to using additive manufacturing. They wanted to change their processes, but changing processes in big companies is difficult. …. So, we’re seeing a number of large companies entertain new design processes which include faster iteration or skipping whole steps of iteration. One of the fun complaints I’ve heard from some customers is that the additive product process is faster than their bureaucracy can keep up with. So, it’s interesting to hear that from customers, ‘Pat, your technology is really helpful, but it’s so fast that the paperwork can’t keep up.’”
The design process has always aligned with the manufacturing process. Designers know in advance whether a part will need to be manufactured through injection molding or machining. And they know the limitations of each process. Now, as designers turn to additive processes, they are beginning to question why they make certain design decisions because additive enables different decisions and approaches.
“The design process is very different and it has to do with both the customization, iteration, design, those three needs are really not separated for a lot of companies right now,” adds Carey. “They’re saying, ‘I can actually do this. I can have an idea and have a part or a product that looks and feels just like it in the customer’s hands in a week,’ which for them is nearly unbelievable.”
Additive manufacturing allows you to skip some or many of the typical steps of iteration.
Traditional manufacturing technologies often require the use of defined steps for prototyping, depending on the part or object. Prototypes range from the initial stage where it’s a white or gray prototype, to the how-does-it-feel prototype, to the how-does-it-look, how-does-it-fit-into-a-package prototype.
“Some customers were going through all these processes and some of those processes were decades old and they’d always done it that way. Well, the supply chain challenges, COVID challenges, Trump trade wars, all this stuff blew that up.”
The realization that companies could not do what they used to do set in. They had to deliver products to the marketplace. They were forced to change.
“I tell people from a 3D printer perspective COVID’s been great. A lot of choices have been eliminated.”
To get product to market, companies had to do something.
“So, we saw people adopt stuff and like, “Wow, this is really interesting. This really works. Why are we doing it the old way?”
Q: What kind of industrialization steps are needed for AM to reach its full potential?
A: Part of the issue is that prototyping has been done on the side. Early versions of 3D printers were standalone systems. To move into manufacturing, they now need to be inline—meaning they need to be part of the manufacturing line.
“And we know the manufacturing line is a complex software and data driven process nowadays. Millions and probably billions of dollars have been spent making these manufacturing lines that way, because we need to know what’s going in and what’s going out.”
For a number of industries, including aerospace and automotive, collecting data on the part and storing that data for warranty or other issues is a big deal.
Thus, the next steps for the additive industry are the connectivity part–to continue to give the 3D printer data, get data in return, and store that data in a standard format.
“Those are big processes that need to be adapted and a lot of the 3D companies are just starting that.
“Another issue is what I call serviceability. If I go on a factory floor with a printer, I need to match its serviceability with that of all the other products on that floor. And that means either train company operators to fix it or have a response time to fix it, especially if it’s key to a product. If it’s key, the downtime of the printer is a big deal. This is a big challenge for 3D printing.
“Users can go online, depending on the printing company, and find the answer on a blog. Well, that’s not going to work on a factory. So those types of challenges around serviceability, reliability, and then repeatability are some of the challenges around industrialization that we’re seeing the industry take on, … get together and have discussions on.”
The questions to discuss and answer revolve around: Will it make the same part over and over exactly the same like injection molding or machining does?
“I don’t think we need to pave any new ground because we can watch what everybody else in the factory’s done. And to be honest, the customers tell us what we need to do. They say, “If you want to be here, you need to do this, this, this, this, this.” It’s just, how do we adapt to it? And then how do we, as an industry start to agree that this is what we’re going to do.”
Q: Is 3D printing additive manufacturing too disruptive to manufacturing right now?
A: “I don’t think so. A lot of it’s going to be driven by the materials. So, if we’re bringing a material to manufacturing that they already know, nylon is the easiest one to talk about. Also, Polycarbonate. So, no, I don’t think so. We’re seeing this, to be honest, we’re seeing the advantages outweigh the effort, the gap.”
Q: Can additive manufacturing be advanced or developed to the point where it fits in with traditional manufacturing processes, the way the manufacturing people want it to do so?
A: “Yes, but one of the common discussions I have with executives revolves around how it’s not a replacement for traditional manufacturing. You can’t take one out and put AM in its place.
Designing for additive at the very beginning of the process has been a key part of making this technology economically viable. Mass production brings in new challenges. Simply taking an older part and trying to duplicate it on an additive system usually doesn’t work economically. And it doesn’t take advantage of additive.
“That’s a caution I always tell people. But if we start up front, back to the earlier discussion on COVID and how additive helped because we had a time problem, that became a key element. Especially for large companies that introduce products on a monthly basis. When you’re not introducing new products to consumers, they get bored. During the pandemic lockdown, consumers had a lot of time on their hands. So, there was a lot of pressure to introduce new products and companies couldn’t do it with traditional methods.
“That changed the world a little bit and made it an advantage for additive. And I think we’ll see that on the manufacturing floor as well. When we think about automotive, going from making millions of the same car to tens of thousands of the same car. Personalization. Customization. As a company processes change, it makes additive more favorable, more appealing than in the past. If a company needs to make two million of a part identically, well, we’re not going to compete with an old process for that. But the markets are changing I think, to our (additive) advantage.
Q: What efforts are underway to address the current criticisms of post-production with AM to make that process more efficient and more cost effective?
A: “I think it is a fair criticism. We’ve spent a lot of decades actually, we’re over 30 years old as Stratasys, getting reliable parts out of the printer. And when it was just prototypes, we mostly did sanding and some painting. There was not a lot of thought put into post processing. But now that we’re going into production environments, there’s an expectation of durability and quality. So if I’m a manufacturer, I’m making a consumer device that somebody’s going to have in front of them, in their hand, the quality of the device is part of the brand. And a 3D printed part needs to carry that level of quality.
The expectation’s going way up, and so there’s more focus on post-production, as well as with some of the newer technologies like powder effusion, DLP as those parts ramp up in production. Post-processing is a big factor because post-processing can really slow down the additive process and it can either add a lot of value or detract a lot of value. We are, as Stratasys, experiencing a big focus on post processing. It is a fair criticism and it’s a big opportunity in my view.”
Q: What’s your prediction for the future of post processing?
A: “I think there will be many new processes in additive post-processing. The big trend will be integration with the printer, though. Can I pass information from the printer about the parts to the post-processing and then customize this?
“Post-processing can be customized. In a lot of cases really, in the old world, it’s just a tank of something, water, glycol, or alcohol to clean the parts. It’s basically a dumb tank. Now we’re starting to see the post-processing process actually gather information and develop information around those parts and be able to pass that information along with the part. So a part goes on an airplane or in a car, it’s possible today to trace back where was that made. Where was it post-processed? What was happening in post-processing?
“And we’re in the polymer space. So heat has a lot to do with polymerization. So what happened heat wise or what happened to the surface? And did that surface make it more or less biocompatible, more or less food grade? All as additive goes into new industries, there’s new sets of requirements, FDA requirements, and so on. Post processing can help or hinder a lot of that.
“I also see a lot more tracking of and storing of the data. I’m seeing control systems put in post processing machines. So rather than being a tank, literally with a drain, it’s actually a smart box that knows what’s going on. We’re starting to see that.”
Q: Could you say that additive is driving digital manufacturing or is additive adapting to digital manufacturing?
A: Carey sees both options. Traditional manufacturing technology is being altered to become more digital, that’s a lot of what efforts such as IoT are about. But additive is inherently digital, so it’s ahead of traditional manufacturing technology.
For Carey, materials are key. “Either metal or polymer, the materials are the most important thing. We’re going to start to see an area where the materials are developed to fit the product. Customers come to us, ‘Can you make a material that looks and feels like this?’ That’s going to start to happen where the end product will drive the chemistry, not here’s ABS now figure out what you can make with it. Before, the material drove the product. Now the product will drive the material and we’ll be able to make materials on the fly or change the materials or affect the materials on the fly. That’s what’s going to start happening. And that will be true digitization.
“And we’ve done some experiments. We’ve had some of these demonstrator systems out there over the last three or four years. We’re able to mix the materials at the point of jetting. And we’re talking to customers who have requirements about putting different materials at different places in a part. Because this place undergoes a different stress and needs more something here or less something there.”
And medical is making similar requests.
“We talk to a lot of universities and in the bio space. We get questions such as ‘Can I put down a material that looks like bone, or looks like skin, or looks like cardiac or nerve material?’ We’re starting to see that around jetting.
“Many limitations are being removed. And then the smart customers start to do stuff with it. I tell people, we make a tool. It’s amazing what humans can do with the tool. We don’t make a product, we make a tool that we give to humans and then see what they do with it. That’s what’s going to be cool about 3D printing.
“And we’re starting to see bio materials come in. I’m seeing more and more focus on materials that are sustainably made from current plant-based fibers.”
Q: What do you think is going to be the next phase for AM? Are we going to go back to more technological developments or are we going to continue in more of a business development phase?
A: Carey sees a key trend being ecosystems. “I think a lot of the players are established as we look at the industry. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley over the last decade. Many of innovative startups had one or two innovations; they tend to get grouped into multiple innovation companies. And then those multiple innovation companies start to form ecosystems because they can’t innovate any faster and can’t do everything. When I mentioned connectivity, that’s really networking. So, when a printer goes onto a factory floor, it’s networking. Well, if I need to network my device to somebody else’s, I better have a common language. I better have a common data format that requires an agreement, which is an ecosystem.
We’re starting to see ecosystems. 3D printing is a relatively tiny industry. And to be honest, we’re mostly friendly with each other. And we’re seeing a lot of ecosystems and partnerships develop. It’s kind of exciting to see at this time of a 35-year-old industry, but it’s very small and everybody wants to be successful. And we’ve watched how technologies progressed over these years. I think we can follow those building ecosystems, building standards, agreeing how to do stuff.
“It’s an exciting time right now in additive, we went through the hype period of 2013, 2014. We went through the financial hype period of 2021. And now it’s all out there. We can all see how each other is doing, growing, shrinking. It’s not just about press releases anymore. We can look at each other’s numbers. And I think there will be a period of rationalization in the next six months to a year that will really help to market go ahead.”