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It's Showtime! Has 3D Printing Finally Matured?

June 12, 2020
While traditional supply chains collapse under stresses of a global pandemic, 3D printing takes center stage as a true savior.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has put manufacturing under a microscope. It has enabled the whole world to see glaring instances of inadequacies and a general lack of preparedness as supply chains seemingly crumbled overnight. Of course, it has also shown amazing strengths in leadership, innovation, determination and collaboration as a growing number of manufacturers leveraged internal capabilities and external partnerships to dynamically pivot operations to meet the dire needs of patients and people on the frontlines. 

Throughout the entire response, one industry fully embraced the opportunity to thrive. Simply put, the pandemic created a perfect storm for 3D printing/additive manufacturing. The crisis opened the door for a young – yet rapidly maturing -- industry as its growing community of passionate users and advocates embraced the challenge to demonstrate the technology’s potential. As such, 3D printing’s potential has taken center stage – giving manufacturers who may have not seriously considered the technology as an option the opportunity to see it in action.

The crisis is demonstrating how additive manufacturing technology can prove instrumental, especially when the traditional supply chain falls short. “The scenarios additive manufacturing groups have discussed for years are playing out in real time,” says Laura Gilmour, EOS’s global medical business development manager. “Big picture, it is interesting that manufacturing as a practice is what's helping address this health crisis, especially when most people don't think about manufacturing as something that would bring humanity together.” 

Supply Chain Savior?

The industry has long made an argument for its ability to streamline supply chains and help address some of the risks including stocking issues, loss of suppliers, trade wars as well as the impact of globalization-specific ripples. “Manufacturers are recognizing the risks that they've created themselves to drive efficiencies,” says Blueprint’s Kunal Mehta. “COVID simply exposed a lot of those risks in a supply chain and brought it very front and center even though people have been talking about it for the last five or so years.”

Gilmour tells IndustryWeek she sees the role of 3D printing falling into four different distinct pillars – bridge, adapt, accelerate and sustain – with the COVID-19 pandemic response serving as an example for each bucket.

Bridge. The ability to quickly provide a stream of components to fulfill a very immediate need. A pandemic example? The massive task force of hospitals, universities, Army Corp of Engineers, manufacturers with additive capabilities and 3D printing companies working collaboratively to produce face shields, test swabs, mask components and spare parts for ventilators. In some instances, the all-in approach to collaboration has meant 3D printing leaders openly sharing access to otherwise protected information with competitors.

This pandemic brought us together as a global community in ways most have not witnessed to date, explains 3D Systems CTO and co-founder Chuck Hull. “This isn’t about driving revenue or launching new products, it’s about taking care of one another. As an industry, we are all working very hard together to get through this crisis,” he says. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact such a crisis can have on supply chains. We’ve witnessed the explosion in demand for personal protection equipment (PPE), medical device components and a need for collaboration in ways never done before. The concept of distributed manufacturing with additive manufacturing at its core has been well-demonstrated in response to the pandemic.”

Adapt. This centers around using 3D printing to help repurpose existing equipment – also to fit an immediate need. A prime example occurring throughout the COVID-19 response has been the creation of splitters for ventilators, so in dire emergency situations medical providers are able to leverage one ventilator for more than one patient. Or repurposing other respiratory type devices to help provide the ventilator functionality that enables people to breathe a little bit easier. Of course, using additive to adapt a medical product may require some discussion with regulatory bodies, especially if it requires a material substitution. 

As a prime example of adapting, during the early days of the pandemic response Desktop Metal worked with a hospital group using European ventilators without access to spare parts needed to keep them operating. “They needed converters which required an odd part they did not know how to manufacture,” says Jonah Myerberg, CTO and co-founder of Desktop Metal. “They were able to get the CAD from the supplier. The part was certainly not designed to be printed, but after making some necessary changes, we were able to quickly print parts that maintained functionality.” 

Accelerate. Enabling other technologies to ramp-up far quicker than when depending on traditional approaches. For instance, enabling the creation of rapid tooling for traditional manufacturing. For instance, making a mold for an injection molding process using additive manufacturing. Because we have this manufacturing supply chain interruption, companies can leverage additive processes to produce parts that the traditional supply chain has not been able to provide. This phase is also the opportunity to bring innovations to life by speeding up the prototype process necessary when bringing new products to market.

Sustain. The best place to be instead of having to solve a problem is to prevent the problem in the first place, which could start with digitizing critical items for future shortage avoidance. Using critical care equipment as an example, when manufacturers should focus on creating digital designs for key products outlining parallel production paths – one utilized day-to-day with traditional, subtractive manufacturing processes, and another for use in crisis situations or even for parts as the business sunsets an offering.

“Putting this in the perspective of the current pandemic, we know that hospitals keep equipment for quite a long time to get the most out of their investment,” says Gilmour. “Additive would enable spare part strategy where parts are created only as needed to avoid carrying an inventory. And, if regulatory authorities have already seen both types of designs, it would avoid the problem of needing to discuss with emergency replacements.”

Sustain is also where Mehta sees the expanded concept of digitization enabling manufacturers to overcome geographic-based risks. “In terms of current material and process development, we are getting there. Post pandemic, we should see companies move quickly toward the digitization of manufacturing toolsets --  jigs and fixtures, tools, molds -- where if you had all of those tools and jigs and fixtures digitized, [you] could react quickly and recreate a factory locally to meet the needs of the pandemic. The questions is could you do that just from general demand increases as well?”

Finding Its Place 

3D printing did not simply arrive in the spotlight. Much like any emerging technology, 3D printing has worked its way through numerous phases including significant hype and media attention in recent years as advocates have actively publicized an array of unique and fully functional creations. Creations that span a broad spectrum of industries.

The technology also enjoyed a considerable spike as access to affordable “crafting” printer models generated significant interest from the maker community. This movement resulted in libraries, non-profit groups and universities investing and encouraging exploration. Soon after the maker’s movement, progressive manufacturers started dipping their toes into additive experiments, with many finding a comfort level with the technology serving as a meaningful prototyping tool in the toolbox. Yet, as the pandemic is demonstrating, additive can play a far bigger role.

Of course, a few movements need to continue for 3D printing to fully capitalize on the current opportunities.

Expanding education efforts. 3D printing is not as easy as pressing print. For manufacturers to effectively leverage additive as a means of remaining flexible and innovative, they first need to value the education component. After all, additive is a large field with ASTM defining several different groupings, each with significant differences in terms of capabilities and limitations. Education will help ensure that investments fit the applications at hand and help companies recognize the value of having a diversity of 3D printing technologies on hand to enjoy the flexibility needed to react effectively in times of need, explains Desktop Metal’s Myerberg.

“Companies will also realize that additive is not something a manufacturer can just jump into. There is support systems around 3D printing, there's learning and education and expertise. There is an entire aspect of designing for additive manufacturing that doesn't happen overnight,” says Myerberg. “When seeing the different processes that go into solving problems, manufacturers will understand the need for an education. You don't just dive blindly into the space. Success requires a certain understanding of various aspects (spacing, tolerances and differences in various additive methodologies/materials).

Encouraging strategic experimentation. Experimentation played a key role in entrenching additive as a prototyping tool as the technology has matured.  However, experimentation still has a potential role, assuming manufacturers do so with a business case and ROI in mind. “We're at a point now where we want to drive experimentation with true value in mind. We want to avoid a situation where this attention drives another round of hype,” says Mehta. “The industry needs to be cautious about moving forward. There are folks that genuinely want to buy printers, but lack the people, processes and technology to support the acquisition of the product. If you get a bunch of printers that just sit idle that doesn't help us as an industry.”

Enabling dual manufacturing approaches. For most volume-focused manufacturers, 3D printing ideally fills a complementary role to traditional manufacturing rather than a replacement. “Traditional manufacturing was created with a factory in mind and a specific volume in mind for that forecast,” he says. “However, when you have new products with low volume or that haven't fully launched yet, the 3D printing side with qualified and design parts can solve demand requirements.”

A dual manufacturing strategy enables manufacturers to harness the army of 3D printers deployed in the market to print because parts have been qualified and designed for printing. This is true whether it’s the result of a demand spike or an aftermarket requirement. 3D printing allows manufacturers, especially in markets where product deployments can extend for decades, to eliminate ongoing inventory, working capital and warehousing expenses. “This is when educated users can pull from a wealth of digital files and truly press print,” says Mehta.

Bottom Line

It is time for companies to consider additive at a higher level of manufacturing than they have thought about it in the past, explains Gilmour. “It will be interesting to see who is going to be the first to build out that sustained strategy going forward - whether its medical, a critical equipment manufacturer or someone else who has done the war game type ideas to not only identify supply chain weaknesses, but also where additive can play a pivotal role,” she says.

The No. 1 challenge that 3D printing faced as it has matured has been finding its place alongside the status quo -- traditional manufacturing. “Getting folks to pivot a mindset from traditional over to 3D printing, by arguing that status quo has changed. The pandemic has shifted that mindset pretty quickly,” says Mehta. “People are being forced to be agile/flexible, people are forced to change the rules, remove some processes and start thinking outside the box.”

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