The additive manufacturing (AM) industry is continuously changing. We asked Justin McCurnin, Vice President of Marketing at Stratasys what trends and developments he sees today. (Stratasys was one of the founders of this industry, and not only have the engineers witnessed a number of developments, they have created many of them as well.)
One of the biggest trends is the additive community’s response to the COVID pandemic. It is highlighting a little recognized capability of additive manufacturing – the importance of a near and quickly responsive supply chain.
“COVID showed many industries the gaps in their supply chains,” says McCurnin. “We’re seeing it, you see it in the news, and everywhere else. Oftentimes I think of 3D printing as the first gear of a car. When you have supply chain issues, you need to go back to first gear. And the fastest way to get going oftentimes is with 3D printing.”
Coalitions and collaboration
Stratasys initiated a COVID Coalition, which enabled the rapid development of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers.
“We were able to develop over a hundred thousand shields with the coalition, which leads me to the second trend that we’re seeing, which is digital factories.”
The coalition made PPE shields with partnerships with other companies; according to McCurnin, more than one hundred partnerships. These companies printed hundreds of shields and sent them Stratasys employees, who paired them with clear plexiglass and shipped them to the healthcare facilities. These companies used a software program, GrabCAD Shop, which is a work management tool that allowed them to manage all the incoming orders from different locations and then deploy them.
In another area of the supply chain, many companies are looking to bring manufacturing capability closer to home in response to the pandemic. The pandemic showed how important it is to have the capability to ramp up fast and change out product lines equally as fast. Many companies and even healthcare facilities are deciding to localize or bring some manufacturing home. It’s a bit like going back to the days of safety stock, only this time, it can be digital safety stock.
“We set up the hundred manufacturers that we had in under five days, where traditional manufacturing would’ve taken five weeks,” adds McCurnin.
With the help of AM, companies and factories will be able to get out of the “silo” format and share best practices. “Because 3D printing allows you to digitize everything,” says McCurnin, “you can put those files out there. And now we can start to share best practices as far as tools, jigs, fixtures, even replacement parts, all in a digital way. And so, you start to get some synergies within your factories.”
Stratasys recently launched a new 3D printer specifically for anatomy. It uses unique digital materials that actually duplicate anatomical parts, such as the heart and veins and arteries. It allows medical schools to reduce the need for cadavers when teaching doctors.
AM on the factory floor
Additive equipment fits right next to the machining equipment that exists today. “In many places they work side by side,” says McCurnin. “I see it in all types of applications. We see it in lay-up tools, jigs, fixtures.” The items AM equipment produces can reduce repetitive motion injury costs, customize tools for the workers, including reducing their weight. Plus, color coding with different types of materials ensures workers select the right tool for the right application.
“The other thing that we’re starting to see more of is what I call protective tools,” adds McCurnin. “Tools or jigs that won’t scratch paint or mar the surface of the part they hold. You see that with some elastomers. And then we just lately introduced Diran, which is a low friction surface. So, it’s easier on the items that are placed against it.”
One of the next steps McCurnin sees beginning to take place in additive manufacturing within the manufacturing workspace is testing. “For example,” he says, “you might know how a piece of steel will perform under certain requirements with traditional manufacturing methods. But when you 3D print it, it’s all based on the design and the material. So there is additional testing that sometimes has to take place just because you’re creating something that’s never been created before. Once it’s tested and proven, then you see the acceleration within the factory. So, I’d say that’s something that’s starting to take place now is this additional testing.”
For engineers using additive manufacturing, key skills include the ability to design for additive manufacturing. This skill includes knowledge on how to do infills, possibly welding of parts, and other things.
Then, users need the skill to justify 3D printing. For example, how to make the ROI case, developing projects that will fit AM, and so on. Stratasys offers a range of online tools that can help users prove to management why AM is a good investment. “Oftentimes,” says McCurnin, “what you’ll do is look at the cost of the printer, the cost of the material, and then understand what your utilization is of the machine.”
3D printers and additive machines can run 24 hours, 365 days a year. Often, however, they are used between 20 and 50% of that capability. Designers need to understand the potential usage and the cost savings compared to other methods to make their case. Cost savings comes from time savings, reduced labor costs, reduced part count, and so on.
Another skill is know how to sell. Know how to encourage others to use the equipment, how to get the rest of the organization to adopt AM. This skill often involves holding webinars, face-to-face meetings, and meetings with other groups outside your organization or outside your team to share what AM actually can do. Designers will need to work with many different groups in a company, finance, manufacturing, the C-suite, and others.
Stratasys is working on expanding the range of materials usable in additive manufacturing. One of its latest offerings is Diran, a tooling material. It’s a nylon-based thermoplastic FDM material, mineral-filled 7% by weight. Its smooth, lubricious surface quality offers low sliding resistance, allowing materials to slide across it easily, which is something that’s sometimes important depending on the applications that you’re doing. It demonstrates good toughness and impact strength combined with resistance to hydrocarbon-based chemicals.
“There are other things in the works, but for right now I’ll tell you that we have the materials coming out.”