Additive manufacturing (AM) is en vogue with everyone, from governments to garage geeks. Some questions being asked, however, are: How will the manufacturing industrial base respond? Does the media hype motivate, reinvigorate, or frustrate today’s manufacturers? Even so, there is a trend toward adopting additive manufacturing capabilities within the more traditional manufacturing service bureaus. However, do all boats rise with such a tide or does another qualifier necessarily apply to significantly realize a return on an additive investment?
Some more questions were recently raised: What’s the perspective of industrial folks toward the Maker Movement? Is there excitement that consumer desktop AM technology will give bigger exposure and benefit to everyone, or is there a sense of apprehension?
From the industrial equipment and service provider’s perspective, it seems that first (and foremost) some differentiation of “3D printing” and other additive manufacturing synonyms is required to accurately define this rising industry and the range of capabilities. However, such accuracy is not necessary for initial discussions, and most find that C-suite executives are more aware of the term “3D printing” than they are about precise processing terminology.
Shane Collins, business development director of Oxford Performance Materials, has seen an increase in instances where a firm’s senior management has directed from the top down to diligently pursue potential AM solutions compared to historic “champions/coaches” educating from the bottom up. Eric Barnes, manufacturing technology manager at Northrop Grumman, is experiencing more corporate involvement in developing the company’s AM strategy. Barnes mentions that this promotes cross-sector awareness and synergy.
Industrial AM equipment builders and part producers do not want the media’s use of “3D printing” to be such a catchall, as laymen may associate 3D printing as a singular process. The challenge some industrial firms have with the term “3D printing” for additive technologies is that it potentially discounts additional value that industrial solutions truly have for the market.
Harvest Technologies CEO David Leigh mentioned that the media frenzy has affected, if not promoted, the Maker Movement; however, the levels of media coverage will probably wane and become unsustainable. An interesting point from Leigh: What about investment sustainability? If one of the large public companies has a hiccup, then does the entire AM industry falter? While AM has been around for decades, the industry is still relatively small, at less than 6.5 percent of the traditional machine tool industry. This means that an investment mishap or technical glitch may have a significant industry impact.
Despite these concerns, though, the holistic AM industry (OEMs, users, educators, etc) is very excited about the pervasive message being told about designing parts and manufacturing them. Such a message has really never been brought to the masses the way the Maker Movement is bringing it (e.g., Maker Faire). CalRAM Vice President Dave Ciscel, AM consultant Greg Sabin, and Barnes all agree that there is little perceived competition from personal AM systems for industries like aerospace and AM solutions involving metals.
Instead, the excitement is the potential energizing of next-generation engineers. Those future engineers are well-needed, as there are current and future challenges in developing material databases, improving processing reliability, and process repeatability.
You never know where the next-gen producers will come from or what will motivate them to choose a manufacturing-related field. Everyone talks about STEM, but no one really has the golden formula. There seems to be a need to better engage the populous with tools and venues to show-and-tell STEM in its applied form: manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing has an opportunity to reach all ages and backgrounds by incentivizing creativity. Consensus has been formed about the Maker Movement’s ability to excite folks from the garage to the classroom. Maker Faires, TED Talks, and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) all play a role in raising awareness with results of great consequence: igniting the builders, tinkerers, and innovators of tomorrow … today!
Tim Shinbara is the technical director of AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology. Based in McLean, Va., AMT represents and promotes U.S.-based manufacturing technology and its members – those who design, build, sell, and service the continuously evolving technology that lies at the heart of manufacturing. For more, visit AMT’s website at www.amtonline.org.
For more on the Building Up article series, contact Tim at tshinbara@AMTonline.org or (703) 827-5243.