What’s Stopping Additive Manufacturing in the Factories?

I’ve been interested in digital manufacturing and additive manufacturing ever since we tore down and rebuilt an entire factory to take advantage of the latest in digital manufacturing technology back in 2007–08.

So I like to keep an eye on the latest trends and developments in the field, especially around measurement, hiring, and, of course, technical advancements.

Recently, Industry Week held a roundtable discussion among experts to talk about what’s stopping additive manufacturing from becoming more mainstream in American factories. They pulled together eight experts and asked their opinions on the obstacles that remain for the additive industry to manage. There were three issues these experts discussed that were of particular interest to me and my experiences.

1. Cost of Production

A woman works at an additive manufacturing facilityArian Aghababaie, co-founder, president and chief strategy officer at Holo put his finger on the biggest problem that many parts manufacturers have with metal additive manufacturing: the part cost.

He said, “Existing metal additive manufacturing technologies result in part unit economics which cannot compete with established manufacturing methods and for those technologies that are cheaper (i.e. binder jetting), they often come with a trade-off of in part fidelity.

There’s just no way that 3D printers can cost-effectively print small parts — jet nozzles, leg brackets, bolts, and other tiny parts — than a well-established parts manufacturer can. They already have the hydraulic-powered stampers and presses that were probably paid off 20 years ago, stamping these things out at a rate of 100 pieces per hour.

Patrick Dunne, vice president of application development, 3D Systems said as much in his answer.

At this point, AM only makes sense when applied to low volume/high-value products of which there are many. But still, it’s only a fraction of what we see within traditional industries that value COGS reduction more than performance. In these industries, mass production using tool-based approaches makes sense and will continue to do so. As such, good diligence is required with identifying applications where there is clear economic justification driven by products that value high performance, time to market, and supply chain flexibility.

You can’t buy a metal 3D printer and hope to produce those quantities in that amount of time for that cost.

Where it will come in handy, however, is when you normally buy those parts from an overseas manufacturer, and you just need a small handful of them to hold you over. Rather than wait a month or order 10,000 pieces just to get a fair price, you could scan one of the remaining pieces you have and print it yourself. Or you could ask a job shop to produce it for you.

So, additive manufacturing is not ready to take over the entire manufacturing world. There are still some places where we need to stay with the old ways. But when you consider that this particular conversation was never in anyone’s imagination ten years ago, don’t be surprised if the entire landscape looks different in another ten years.

2. Education

Jonah Myerberg, CTO and co-founder of Desktop Metal mentioned one hurdle that digital manufacturing, in general, is facing right now: Education. He said:

Engineers and designers are just beginning to unlock the full potential AM has to offer. As additive becomes more mainstream in the manufacturing world, educating engineers to think differently about how to design products will be essential. AM unlocks limitless opportunities when it comes to design and this out-of-the-box mindset is a shift from how engineers and designers have been trained and taught previously. Many universities are beginning to adopt and invest in 3D printers to teach the next generation of engineers about its vast benefits, but there is certainly a lot of room for expanding that knowledge worldwide. The opportunities within AM for design and manufacturing optimization mean opportunities for a new generation of engineers to evolve AM well beyond what it is today.

Manufacturing is facing a labor shortage right now, especially the high-skilled labor needed to operate the digital manufacturing machines we’re already running, not to mention the new 3D printers that are making their way into the plants.

So, speaking to Jonah’s point, the adoption of additive manufacturing is not only a question of having the engineers and designers who can unlock its full potential; it’s a question of having the high-tech manufacturing know-how to run the actual machines.

3. Executive Buy-In

Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America said that his executives regularly talk about “breaking the habits of the present.” He said that they’d developed a mindset and way of doing things that are “defined by decades of investments, amortized costs, and the ‘knowns’ of how to make things.”

He said that additive manufacturing requires C-level commitment because it will affect nearly every department in an organization.

Rich Garrity, Stratasys Americas president, echoed the sentiment. He told the panel, “The other obstacle is simply getting manufacturing leaders to understand that 3D printing is really ready for prime time. They’ve traditionally seen it as something that is off in the lab run by the engineers.

The issue that many companies are going to have is that they’re going to dinosaur their way into obsolescence. While it doesn’t make a lot of sense to just make a wholesale shift from the old methods of production to additive manufacturing, it also doesn’t make sense to let “we’ve always done it this way” be the management mindset either.

How many manufacturers went out of business because their executives put off a painful decision and kicked that can down the road until they ran out of road?

Companies that want to start additive manufacturing and digital manufacturing need to start making decisions right now. They don’t have to be major shifts, but you can add a small 3D printer to your machine lineup and start learning how to manufacture specialty parts, use it for prototyping, or even becoming a 3D printing outsource partner for your partners and even your competitors.

By dipping your toe in these waters this year, you’ll still be light years ahead of the competition who are still operating on mid-20th century technology and ways of thinking.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Formlabs, Inc. (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.