I gave a speech earlier this week at a National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA) meeting down in Akron, Ohio, all about 3-D printing and additive manufacturing.
It was a fun speech – a kind of high-level overview of the capabilities and potential of the technology along with a few businesses cases they could take back to their shops. Exactly the kind of thing I like to talk about.
When I finished, the crowd of local tool and die executives, company owners and all the other industrial representatives and workers in attendance hit me with an intense 20-minute Q&A that came down to one subject: standards.
These guys are in the business of standards and measurements. That's how their companies get by – how they differentiate themselves in the market and win their contracts.
To them, however interesting additive might sound, however tempting it may have been to start investing in it, they couldn't consider any moves without knowing exactly what kinds of metals these printers were using and exactly how they compared to those they already knew.
And I didn't have a good answer for them. I danced around it, sure, I talked generally about strength comparability and worked in a few good anecdotal points, but I had no numbers to give them and no formal standards to cite. Because none exist.
At least not yet.
When I opened my inbox this morning, I found a flurry of emails from and about the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which, it seems, has suddenly decided to give 3-D printing a major bump in this neglected area.
It announced today the award to two grants – one to NAMII down in Youngstown, Ohio, and another to Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, Ill. – totally $7.4 million to fund research projects specifically aimed at "improving measurement and standards for the rapidly developing field of additive manufacturing."
The grants break down to $5 million to NAMII for a three-phrase collaborative research project, and $2.4 million to NIU to develop tools for process control and qualifying 3-D printed parts.
To me – and maybe because of my experience at NTMA – this is the best thing that could have happened to the industry.
Giving 3-D printing companies certifiable evidence, hard numbers and proof for the quality, strength and durability of their parts, is all the industry needs to grow in the traditional market – to make the "hybrid factory" a reality.
Standardization is the next step in the industrialization of 3-D printing – another layer of "magic" torn away from its reputation.
And that is nothing but good.
If the industry is ever going to take off, it needs to do so on an even field, playing by the same rules as the rest of the machine tools. And that takes time and investment and standards. And it looks like that's on the way.