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What Obstacles Are in Additive's Way?

Jan. 12, 2021
Industry leaders discuss biggest obstacles facing the additive manufacturing space.

As the first two parts of this virtual roundtable discussed, 2020 was a milestone year for additive manufacturing and the industry has a solid future ahead. Of course, part of ensuring that the anticipated future becomes a reality rests with understanding the biggest challenges they will face along the way.

Read on to hear what industry leaders identify as the biggest remaining obstacles.

Chris Schuppe, general manager of engineering and technology, GE Additive:  Four major obstacles remain for the additive industry to tackle;

  1. Design machines with the mindset of being able to fit them into a high-volume factory 
  1. Design parts and systems to take advantage of the benefits of 3D printing. One-for-one part replacement may make sense, but we design parts for casting or forging or machining, why not for additive, especially when there are advantages to be had?
  1. Materials maturity and having the right amount of knowledge of the properties, and the variability of the properties of printed metal parts.
  1. Cost. Today, most metal additive processes are still too expensive for medium or low-cost industries. The development of technologies like binder jet will offer a significant opportunity to break into these industries and drive higher volume applications. 

Patrick Dunne, vice president of application development, 3D Systems: As a relatively new technology, AM is playing catch-up in regards to specifications and standards – both for design allowables as well as advanced design methodologies. However, this is changing fast. These are areas of intense activity with some significant step changes in our understanding of what’s required as well as how to apply processes that mitigate risk and facilitate expansion into new industries and applications.

The second obstacle is economics. 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.

Benny Buller, Velo3D CEO and founder: 1. Print parts without designing the manufacturing process. 2. Cost reduction to compete with traditional manufacturing. 3. Part quality has to be trustworthy and dependable.

Jonah Myerberg, CTO and co-founder of Desktop Metal: Education. 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.

Shifting the manufacturing mindset from prototyping to high volume production. Manufacturers' use of current 3D printing technologies is largely focused on early design concepts and prototyping applications rather than volume production of end-use parts. While the growth of additive manufacturing has accelerated in recent years, companies have found it difficult to move away from the traditional manufacturing practices they are most used to, preventing them from realizing the full benefits of additive manufacturing. Ernst & Young found that only 18% of industrial businesses in 2019 used AM for end-use parts, lagging other use cases such as rapid prototyping. Because older, legacy 3D printing technologies are better suited to design and prototyping applications, businesses pursuing additive manufacturing solutions face perceived barriers to adoption. Every day, new industries are discovering that this is no longer the case, but this mindset must continue to change.

Rich Garrity, Stratasys Americas president: Today we have the 3D printing technologies and materials to address a tremendous amount of manufacturing applications that weren’t quite there a couple years ago.  People are starting to recognize that one technology might be better suited for auto parts and another for aircraft interiors and another for medical applications, and that diversity of compelling solutions, from FDM to powder bed fusion, is there. However, now it comes down to all the things that help you get beyond the early adopters and reach scale. We need 3D printing systems with the intelligence and control capabilities for part accuracy with high throughput. We  need connectivity to manufacturing execution systems or asset management systems to optimize efficiency and minimize downtime. We need better additive design tools to ensure that the parts you design on the screen will consistently work when they come out of the additive systems.  We’ve gotten very good at this particularly in aerospace, where we’ve been producing end-use parts for a few years now, and we’ve seen some remarkable progress in medical applications recently, driven in part by the pandemic. We’re making good progress extending that knowledge and experience to other industries too.

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.  When we created a “COVID Coalition” of companies like Blue Origin, Winnebago and Medtronic to 3D print more than 100,000 face shields this spring, it caught the attention of a lot of business leaders at those companies, who started asking whether it might be time to do more with 3D printing than they have done in the past.

Arian Aghababaie, co-founder, president and chief strategy officer at Holo: The biggest obstacle to the adoption of AM continues to be part cost. 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. In order for AM to penetrate a wider breadth of industries, there needs to be a departure from the frontier curve of speed, resolution and cost that the industry has been constrained to over the last 30 years. In other terms, the equipment cost needs to decrease significantly with a corresponding order of magnitude increase in throughput, whilst being able to maintain the highest possible resolution. This is another area where Holo is leading the way. Our proprietary additive manufacturing technology uses high definition imaging to produce high purity metal parts with feature resolution down to 100µm. From our pilot facility in Newark, CA we can produce tens of thousands of parts per month, enabling us to hit part costs and volume required for industries from consumer electronics to automotive and that cannot be achieved by any other metal additive technology.

Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America: AM enablement and education are still both major obstacles in our industry today. Most organizations simply do not have the in-house experiences or partnerships to develop a successful AM program. At the executive level we always talk about breaking the habits of the present. Not in a negative way but meaning our current manufacturing mindset is defined by decades of investments, amortized costs, and the “knowns” of how to make things. AM is a clean-slate manufacturing technology that requires C-level commitment, and an understanding that AM impacts nearly every department in an organization. At the mid-level, training is needed on part selection, designing for AM, and how to successfully produce. While at the entry level and in higher education, our industry must do all we can to partner with professors and department heads to build the curriculum and hands-on programs that both educate and inspire the next generation of designers, engineers, logisticians, and manufacturers.

Ramon Pastor, head of 3D printing technology, operations and metals, HP Inc.: As companies develop new supply chain strategies for risk mitigation, not only to address the current Covid-19 crisis or future pandemics, but to guard against volatile global economic trade cycles, advanced 3D printing solutions can help them accelerate this transformation. Distributed manufacturing will enable local production – providing what you want, where you want, in the quantities you need. For example, on-demand production can be applied to dynamic spare parts initiatives, giving companies more flexibility. Instead of having to reallocate capital to manufacture spare parts when the initial good is delivered, parts can be produced on demand later in the product lifecycle.

That said, companies must have the capabilities to design differently and with personalization in mind, they must have quality control processes in place and have the digital infrastructure and software to scale to mass production. Deploying efficient, high quality end-to-end digital manufacturing requires a strategic, well executed vision. Integrating design innovation and a digital mindset into current business structures takes time.

More than half of HP’s Digital Manufacturing Trends Report respondents say large scale personalization is their biggest obstacle. 48% report that manual versus automated processes are a secondary challenge, followed by data inoperability at 43%.

Still, those paradigms are shifting, because they have to. Consumers demand it. Our environment demands it. More and more, companies are leveraging 3D printing technology for its speed, flexibility, design capabilities and ability to support distributed manufacturing and assembly.

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