Among the many benefits of using 3D printing is how it effects sustainable efforts in design and production. Recently I had a chance to speak with Nadav Goshen, president and CEO at MakerBot on 3D printing developments in this area. Here are highlights from our conversation.
The subject of sustainability and 3D printing covers a range of issues. Goshen and MakerBot are focused on changing the way we make things, specifically around overall production. Changes to the production process can be enormous, covering initial design phases through manufacturing.
“In each part of the journey from a design to a part, 3D printing brings a lot of value into sustainability,” he says.
For example, there’s a cost to maintaining a number of parts somewhere for future use. One aspect of storing the parts is they must be stored properly and then transported back and forth, all of which has a cost associated with it. 3D printing/additive manufacturing can eliminate those costs by producing the part where it is needed, when it’s needed.
“Because of the way industry typically fabricates things, we are constrained by the need to have parts ready, not necessarily when they’re needed. But 3D printing can change that. The digital element of additive manufacturing and 3D printing can really take all of this waste out of the system and make sure that we are more considerate about the resources we use when we build things.”
On the design side, there’s more opportunities to really, for example, cut cost and waste from the manufacturing process. When you design with sustainability in mind, or when you get to the production side of things, you have much more efficiency on that side.”
Trends in designing for sustainability
The quality of desktop professional grade 3D printers continues to improve. “Once more designers and engineers have more access to such 3D printers, they can really experiment with the technology. And that brings new design thoughts into a process of engineering product. So, we see that trend coming.
“In some industries, we see that subtractive design is eliminating possibilities, because you need to do multiple parts. Thus, you have multiples of tools, fasteners, etc. to produce and assemble the multiple parts. You also have double the waste. Once you think in additive, though, then you can combine two parts into one. And then you cut almost in half the overall environmental cost to produce a part. So, we see that trend coming.
“We see a number of economical drivers, but sustainability by itself needs to be fueled by the industry to make it more, I would say, embedded within companies’ P and L statements and the way they think about process.
“We see that for example in aviation and aerospace, where that kind of additive thinking really translates into less complicated and also lighter parts. When you have that, then it translates immediately into less or better fuel economy.
“So, all of this process is making a full circle from the possibilities we have to the economic value and then to the process of manufacturing.”
Bringing in the C-Suite
For the C-Suite, working with innovation imposes a risk. Engineers are more comfortable with innovation because they are closer to the technology and can get hands-on experience with it. The C-level is a bit further away from innovative technology. Thus, executives can have a gap of knowledge and experience where they potentially view that technology, such as 3D printing, as a higher risk than what it should be.
Such an approach was common sense during the early days of a technology, but after a decade, it’s time for a new perspective. Part of changing the habitual perspective involves how to communicate to the C-level executive that the technology has matured and is less risky, and that there are use cases across the world. Hopefully, we won’t rely on events such as pandemics to bring greater awareness to the C suites about how useful 3D printing can be, especially with supply chains.
Another part of the issue is the cost of insurance. You don’t understand the cost of not having something unless you have “insurance” for it. This insurance covers situations we are not really prepared for. And again, the pandemic proved that if we are not putting some type of thought, action and policies in place, i.e., insurance, when the time comes, then there is a big cost to not being prepared.
Additive manufacturing and 3D printing is insurance for supply chain shortages and to everything that might happen. In many cases, these economic factors were not really put into the overall calculation of reasons to use 3D printing.
“I think both perspectives are changing now. The risk averse nature is changing and the need to understand or the understanding that the need to invest in a different way to manufacture and to have a supply chain strategy is also something that companies are investing in. The actual hidden costs in the supply chain have made the C-executive really consider their strategy around supply chain, manufacturing, and overall engineering.”
Another factor that will help the C-Suite re-evaluate 3D printing is the price of this technology. The investment that is needed to get 3D printing technology into your organization is lower. Systems that are capable, that are engineering grade, are being sold for a few thousand dollars, which is potentially affordable on a designer’s discretionary budget.
Then if you want to move up to more advanced additive manufacturing technology based on a proven use case, your company can invest to get a manufacturing grade machine.
“I think this is what we need to do because if your sales pitch is too theoretical, then it becomes less tangible for the C-executive,” continues Goshen.
Continuous evolution of 3D printers
A highly innovative technology, like 3D printing, brings enormous possibilities for addressing design and manufacturing challenges. But it comes with an inherent “trap” that what it can deliver is real. It’s easy for C-suite executives to lose confidence in the practical engineering that this technology can bring to their own day to day challenges.
“I’m C-suite. I know my challenges. They’re not in the conceptual world. They’re in the practical world. And what I need to get a decision about investing in something new is, how does that translate into pragmatics? Let’s see more executive P and L contribution to my business,” says Goshen.
Desktop 3D printers can play a key role in demonstrating pragmatic benefits. With a very low investment, engineers can eventually change the way products are made and change the way their company handles the supply chain. A desktop 3D printer can help engineers make their ideas, their concepts tangible in the minds of their bosses.
As Goshen notes, technology needs to shift from being inspiring to being practical for executives to buy into it.
“We need that transition from an inspiring technology into practical technology, aside from innovation to engineering. And I think what is really happening is what happened in the computing industry maybe 20 years ago, for example, where it became more accessible.”
Goshen compares the adoption of 3D printing to that of the early adoption of personal computers. Computing, to Goshen, is a cross-technology product. A 3D printer, on the other hand, is a combination of chemistry and embedded computing, and all of it has to work together.
“3D printing is a much more complex process to control versus electric circuits on boards. So, I think this is what is affecting how this technology’s been spread. While it’s easy to get a part, it’s less easy to tune the printer. And that’s a challenge.
“I think there are many desktop machines, but they are not practical because they get to the point where they print the part, but it’s not repeatable. It’s not dimensionally accurate. And it’s really not easy to use and it’s not reliable. And when you have this, and this we had in the last few years, then it contributes to the confusion and also to the frustration of users.
So, we need to get the technology into the stage where it’s reliable and repeatable and it’s really engineering grade. This is the journey. It’s different between desktop and engineering grade machines. We need to make sure that we have engineering grade machines in the hand of anyone that has a practical use to it. I think that’s what is happening right now.”
The additive technology is still quite fragmented with people grouping brands and systems together. One example is what MakerBot calls engineering grade desktop versions. Desktop 3D printers and engineering grade desktop 3D printers are similar in size. Maybe the cost is double the desktop one, but it offers features such as in-process tuning that is required to get these engineering grade machines accepted.
“In computing, I think that in-process tuning was built in because its electronics. In 3D printing, it’s a combination of… I wouldn’t get into the details, but every engineer knows that taking a solid, liquefying it, and then getting it back to solid involves a micro-level accuracy and involves a complex system to make sure that you can control it and you can maintain the same results.
Three general categories
The range of 3D printing features and functions is wide. That fact is also contributing to the reluctance of some to invest in this technology.
One category is the hobbyist market, or the maker market. This market was the origin of the desktop movement. “It’s a great market. I’m a user. But it’s a market where users have the skills in trying to get something to work and the willingness to participate in the result process. It means that I’m involved in the process of making, because I’m a maker. I enjoy that process of making it successful. But it’s not a professional use case,” notes Goshen.
The second category is education, which has different needs because of the use of technology for learning purposes. They use 3D printing to make learning more immersive. It ties into STEM education in many ways.
“The third category is what I call entry level engineering, which we are operating in, which is an accessible and affordable engineering grade machine. But it is still aimed at the individual engineer. It brings to the table a well-tuned, reliable engineering grade device that can be used for professional purposes to design and engineer parts.
“A subset of this category is the shared office 3D printer, which is a larger than an individual printer, often a floor model. That is a natural expansion of that individual printer,” says Goshen.
And then, on top of this, comes various levels of scalability in terms of materials and manufacturing focused printers. And then it becomes more specific. Then you move from the prototyping and small plastic production part to manufacturing. And this is another world by itself.
“All of this is using the same technology. But they’re not the same products. All of them use the same underlying technology, but classifying them together is probably not accurate and could contribute to the confusion that we already have in this fragmented industry,” notes Goshen.
Goshen sees the industry shifting since it’s early days when people expected we’ll have a 3D printer at each house without thinking about the basics of what products are.
“A product needs to serve a specific purpose. There has been confusion between the technology and the applications and the product translation of that technology. Which is something common with hype cycles. We are now in the stage where we can take this technology into different applications.
“I think that’s the cost that you’re paying today. We can reduce the cost today if we just change the way we think about manufacturing in general,” he says.