John Kawola, president of Ultimaker North America discusses the role 3D printing can have in manufacturing.
Q: You recently made comments about the value of a “manufacturing minute.” Can you go into that in a little bit more detail?
A: Sure. Well, being in the business of selling and marketing 3D printers, … 3D printers are purchased the same way a lot of other productivity tools are purchased in engineering, and design, and manufacturing; similar to CAD software, and other products. It’s all about saving time, getting to a better design, saving money. We want to try to find a way to quantify that in some meaningful way. We put together some data. We looked at some industries like automotive. We looked at general manufacturing to just try to quantify the scale of what time really means. There’s a lot of data in that piece, in terms of the value of a manufacturing minute.
Another theme is really just how much time is “time” really worth, especially when a company is trying to get a product to market. The way to frame that is if a company is one week or one month, or six months, or one year late to market, in a lot of ways, that’s lost revenue during that period of time. That revenue you would have achieved in that week, or month, or year, and people I think often believe that, ‘Well, if you’re delayed, you’ll get it back from just starting later.’ I think that’s … for most cases, not true.
The world is moving quickly. Competition is always emerging. If you’re a week, or a month, or a year late, that’s just lost forever. Really, the goal for that piece was to try to put some numbers around the value of time in the industries that we play in.
Q: How close are we to justify 3D printing or additive manufacturing in that particular industry?
A: Well, I mean manufacturing is broad. Whether it’s people making toys, or shoes, or aerospace … in the aerospace market, automotive market. It’s a very broad definition in manufacturing. I think what is encouraging is a lot of the technologies in additive manufacturing have evolved to the point where these machines can produce products that will meet the technical requirements or the aesthetic requirements that people are looking for. This wasn’t true five or ten years ago, and it’s increasingly true for more and more products every day.
I think there’s two requirements that need to be met for most companies to consider it. One is the part itself. Is it strong enough? Is it smooth enough? Is it sharp enough? Does it meet all the technical requirements that I need? Then, the second half of that is cost. They’re used to making that part a certain way using molding or machining, or some other process. Now, 3D printing is just a different way to do that. You have to compare the costs in both scenarios.
What’s encouraging in additive manufacturing is there’s lots of new development, especially over the last four or five years. Lots of companies pushing the envelope in terms of new technology, but also trying to push the envelope in terms of cost, because if it doesn’t really start to be viable for a meaningful number of applications, then it’ll still be relegated only for prototype.
Q: Regarding installing 3D printing in additive manufacturing in some kind of a manufacturing capacity, what do you see as needing to be addressed by this technology so that it is more useful to manufacturing? Is it a bit of an education issue? Is it a technical issue? Is it just a habitual focus of thought as opposed to why it’s not as … popular as it potentially could be?
A:Yeah, I think it’s a little of all three of those components. Arguably, part of the challenge still is the technologies … Collectively, the technologies out there don’t satisfy enough of the needs for most manufacturers. The applications that have been applied first, maybe the dominoes that it fits over first are the applications where there’s a real premium put on speed, and cost, and value.
One of the challenges in most … almost all manufacturing operations is there’s some set up cost, some tooling charge that could cost $10,000, could cost a million, depending on the product and that time to make those … to make the tools and get set up is often weeks, if not months. One of the advantages of 3D printing is that you eliminate that, essentially. You don’t really have tooling. You don’t really have set up charge.
The dominoes that have tipped over first for using additive manufacturing for real and used parts have been the applications where relatively low volume, or even one-off type volume. Then, there’s also a value placed on performance that perhaps could, in those applications, be achieved by 3D printing. You look at some of the applications out there, some of the applications in dental. Dental is, in a lot of ways, the ultimate one-off market. Every part produced is different. That’s natural to see why that has done so well in that space.
Look at aerospace. Aerospace is inherently not a high volume market. It’s not like automotive where aerospace manufacturer is making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of planes. They’re making hundreds or thousands. It’s inherently a low volume market compared to automotive. Also, they will pay a real premium for performance. If there are design improvements that can be made through additive manufacturing that, let’s say, makes a component 5% or 10% lighter, that’s real value in aerospace.
I think that’s why, at least so far, you’ve seen those types of applications be applied first. I think you’ll see over time that additive will start to keep into more and more applications, which, where the user is really comparing additive versus a traditional approach, and where they can get the benefit of faster time to market, less tooling costs. Then, the per-part unit cost can get closer and closer to what they’re doing today.
Q: It almost sounds like there’s a little bit of a lack of comparative data because AM is not such a wide range of applications in industries that users don’t really know what to use to evaluate, because there’s not enough information out there.
A:Set up costs are pretty well known. Then, there’s a lot of intangible costs like time; the time to be able to get the first production, and what is that worth to the company? I alluded to in the beginning of the segment here, I alluded to if you can get to market a month earlier, that by itself, it’s either a cost, or you could flip it around. It’s an incremental gross margin, or incremental revenue that’s of value to the company. I think those types of intangible costs are not clear. It’s perhaps hard to have a standard set of what those costs are, because all companies are different and value things a little bit differently.
I think part of the challenge and one of the tasks for the industry is to educate users not only on the well understood costs, like material costs and tooling costs, but also on a lot of the intangible costs, like the freedom to go to production without tooling, the freedom to think about having 20 different manufacturing sites around the world, or 50; where perhaps making 50 tools wouldn’t quite make sense. Or, that the savings that comes with reduced freight, reduced logistics. There’s all those intangible costs that I think people are becoming more aware of, and I think the industry has to do a better job to educate the users about.
Q: People might need to look at this technology in an application, in manufacturing, in a little different way. For example, with your systems, even though they’re predominantly desktop type systems, you could iterate incredibly fast and create multiple parts in different ways than a traditional manufacturing set up.
A: Sure, sure. I think one of the … this sort of crosses the line in some ways back to prototyping, and tooling, and manufacturing, but we look at this as a continuum. To the extent that users are using additive manufacturing for prototyping and design, then that helps them to better understand how to perhaps use it for manufacturing, and perhaps use it as a production tool for end use parts.
I think in a lot of ways, it can be a continuum. I think one of the challenges in the past, perhaps, in getting people to really embrace it for manufacturing is they may have been using 3D printers for 25 plus years for prototyping, but then they would use them for prototyping, and then it would go over a wall.
Then, people would think about, ‘Okay, now how do I make this?’ Tooling engineers would get involved, and there would be a whole cycle there. But if there’s a continuum from prototyping all the way to end use parts where you’re essentially using the same type of technologies, I think there’s a lot of benefit there.
Q:For your customers, what are some of the things that are keeping them up at night? How are you addressing those areas?
A: We come from the world of desktop prototyping. That’s where most of our customers are getting value from what we’re doing. Then, we’re seeing them wanting to pull these technologies further down the process, and start to use them for manufacturing. I think what keeps our customers up at night about using our technologies, and it’s a challenge for us as a company, is that I think the need for repeatability, the need for accuracy, the need for even certification, the need for up time, all those things are real and important in the manufacturing world. To be honest, they’re not real and important in the prototyping world.
People have a 3D printer, and if it works 95% of the time, and they get great parts most of the time, and they get them quickly, and they’re cost effective compared to going to a service bureau or carving something out of wood, then they win. But in manufacturing, 95% of the time may not be good enough. They need to have a level of confidence that the first part is the same as the 5,000th part that comes off the line. The world of manufacturing is used to that. That’s well understood and a lot of technologies that … injection molding, and other types of processes are sort of developed, and certified, and quantified to be able to do that. I think 3D printing is just getting into that.
It’s perhaps less about accuracy, because I think a lot of the technologies out there can produce the part that people need; but can they produce it 5,000 times in a row? I think that’s something new for the additive manufacturing industry.