In the weeks surrounding Super Bowl LIII, there were myriad conversations about the
head trauma that is intrinsic to the game of football. Nothing new there. We’ve been having the concussion discussion for years now.
But there was one storyline—a positive one—that bubbled up this year. California-based Carbon, a leader in the additive-manufacturing space, partnered with sports-gear manufacturer Riddell to launch a line of custom football-helmet inserts (shown above) intended to reduce the severity of hits to the head. “The tunable lattice liner also addresses precise needs related to movement, energy management, stability and comfort,” according to Riddell.
Translation: less bells rung. This newsworthy product launch is a win for wide receivers, of course, but also a bellwether for the maturation of additive manufacturing—the growth of strategic applications of 3D printing.
“We believe in using the power of technology to advance innovation,” says Carbon CEO and Co-founder Dr. Joseph DeSimone. “Our platform enables companies like Riddell to make products that were never thought possible.”
That’s a bold statement. And it’s a mindset that is becoming increasingly commonplace as 3D printers pop up across the industrial landscape, changing business strategies along the way.
‘Why don't we have it?’
Additive manufacturing is booming. According to Wohlers Associates’ Wohlers Report 2018, a 21% growth rate last year propelled the additive-manufacturing industry beyond $7.3 billion. SmartTech Publishing puts that figure at $9.3 billion in revenues generated via hardware, software, materials and services. And research from Gartner predicts that by 2021, 20% of the world’s top 100 consumer-goods companies will use 3D printing to create custom products.
We’re printing a bright future. And while there are hordes of startups (in addition to those 100 consumer-goods goliaths) trying to capitalize on this trend, 3D printing actually has a longer history in manufacturing than many realize.
“Additive manufacturing has been around for 30 years now, moving through different
cycles,” explains John Kawola, North American president of Ultimaker, which focuses on desktop 3D printing. “Most of those early efforts were devoted to merely prototyping. Then around 2000 the price got down into the $50,000 range and there was more adoption. Now it’s not just the early adopters who have it. It’s becoming more ‘Why don’t we have it?’”
Good question. The reasons are varied, still complex, but becoming less challenging to overcome each year, particularly as more business leaders recognize that additive manufacturing should be a key component of their go-to-market strategies. Kawola says succinctly, “It can change the way they deliver products.”
A quick primer
Additive manufacturing, according to the Wohlers team, is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to the more traditional subtractive-manufacturing methodologies. As the GE Additive team puts it, additive manufacturing uses data computer aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to direct hardware to deposit material, layer upon layer, in precise geometric shapes.
In short, rather than carving a block of material or stamping a sheet into a form, we’re manufacturing from scratch.
And the process is evolving rapidly. Consider Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis technology, which employs a photo-chemical process that projects light through an oxygen-permeable window into a reservoir of UV-curable resin. As a sequence of UV images are projected, the part solidifies and the build platform rises. Parts are then baked in a forced-circulation oven, where heat prompts a secondary chemical reaction that causes the materials to adapt and strengthen.
This ain’t your grandfather’s manufacturing.
Most domestic 3D-printing machines use plastics and polyurethanes as the primary building blocks. There is a recent increase in carbon- and glass-filled nylons for specific applications. Additive manufacturing in Europe is more focused on metals than in the U.S., according to Rainer Gebhardt with Germany’s Additive Manufacturing Association.
The benefits of additive manufacturing—the wins used to justify shifts in business strategy—are many. And they might surprise you.
Production time can be drastically reduced when there is no need to build a mold or secure special composite materials. Mass customization demanded by consumers becomes a reality. Additive manufacturing enables true distributed production, as facilities can be leaner, smaller, and more localized to their customer communities. As such, jobs stay home and local preferences can better inform production designs.
“You should be able to buy a car made in your hometown,” surmises Justin Fishkin, an advisor to Local Motors, the motor-vehicle manufacturer that made a splash in 2015 by printing a complete, working car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Goods produced via additive manufacturing can be easily, accurately engineered and (if need be) produced in locations far from the engineering center—just send over the file.
Additive manufacturing enables a nimbleness unseen in the history of manufacturing. Kawola uses the analogy of spare parts in an auto shop. “What if you just made the parts at the service center?” he ponders. “No inventory. No shipping. Customized parts.”
And all of these benefits inform radical shifts in business strategy. Adds Fishkin, “Additive manufacturing is a way for companies to have more at bats with products, since they’re not spending money on products that aren’t selling.”
That benefits everybody.
Aerospace & medical apps
Certain industries are a natural fit for the capabilities of additive manufacturing. Take aerospace, where the costs of 3D printing are acceptable in light of the value of reliability and the importance of strength-to-weight ratio. Also, consider scale—nobody is making a million rocket ships.
Or consider surgical manufacturing, which requires a high level of accuracy and is tightly regulated. (Patients prefer that their artificial heart valves fit properly.) The regulated industries have been the better markets; they have had a lot of motivation in the last decade to figure out how to certify these parts.
The medical realm has given us one of the greatest success stories related to 3D printing. California-based Align Technology’s entire business model is predicated on custom-printed Invisalign teeth-straightening trays. No two Invisalign products are the same. And in recent years the company has had hundreds of millions of reasons to smile.
Additive vs. assembly line
“The pan-industrial revolution implies a second stage of manufacturing, where additive manufacturing is to replace the assembly-line model,” says Richard D’Aveni, Bakala Professor of Strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
The professor believes that companies are becoming more diversified thanks to the flexibility of additive manufacturing. Manufacturers are shifting strategies, expanding their roles from merely maker to service provider. They are combining pieces to bring entirely new products to market in entirely new ways.
D’Aveni proposes the example of the cell phone. Traditionally one company fabricated the body, another made the electronics, a third made the screen and a fourth produced the lighting that illuminates the screen. “All of that can now be 3D printed,” he says, imagining an additive-manufacturing process that requires no assembly. “You can produce all four elements simultaneously, building up layer by layer. Suddenly all of these parts are made by the OEM, and the supply chain disappears.”
The professor, who authored "The Pan-Industrial Revolution: How New Manufacturing Titans Will Transform the World," notes that even the early adopters of additive manufacturing still cling to antiquated manufacturing strategies. They are 3D printing parts, which is terrific, but then feeding those parts into an assembly line. “The more advanced companies are redesigning their processes so they can combine parts into larger, more complicated parts. As we get more of that we will begin to threaten the assembly-based economies around the world.” (D’Aveni notes, with a laugh, that he doesn’t like to say that out loud, as people suspect he is out of his mind.)
Critical to the growth of additive manufacturing is the C-suite recognizing the value in it (or being forced to acknowledge they need to get on board), then building strategies and earmarking dollars in that direction.
“This digital Industrial Revolution is spearheaded by the accelerating growth of additive manufacturing, and its leaders will be defined by whether they can harness the full power of 3D printing,” says Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development at HP 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing.
“We know manufacturing. And we know scale,” says Schiller. “Our vision, paired with our expertise in manufacturing and roots in industrial 2D printing, has allowed us to up-level the additive-manufacturing space to a point where we are moving the needle from prototyping to full production of final parts.”
Schiller cites industry research that indicates as much as six trillion USD of the global economy will be disrupted and redistributed in the next decade due to additive manufacturing. “Every facet of manufacturing is ripe for reinvention, but no new technology—whether it’s artificial intelligence or advanced robotics—has the potential to transform industries on the same scale as additive manufacturing.”
HP is not alone in that optimism. There are many big companies making big bets.
Siemens boasts that its NX software provides all of the necessary capabilities—from design to print to post-print validation—in a single integrated system, enabling users to prototype then manufacturer products within the same network.
“One company doing it right is Siemens,” says D’Aveni. “They are building out the whole series of software products. They are making or purchasing other products (AI, IoT) that are all compatible with the core additive-manufacturing platform.”
Minnesota-based Stratasys positions itself as a strategic partner for industries new to or steeped in additive manufacturing. “Adopting 3D printing is advantageous,” reads a tagline, “but it requires more than just purchasing a machine.”
Massachusetts’ Desktop Metal is a leader in the growing space of desktop 3D printing—think smaller-scale efforts—using metal composites rather than plastics.
And shipping giant UPS has launched its Additive Manufacturing Initiative in order to stay ahead of the digital curve. “I’m very focused on helping UPS make the jump from the industrial economy to the digital economy, from a supplier-centric supply chain to a consumer-centric supply chain, and from ‘the tightest ship in the shipping industry’ to one that is also highly adaptable and agile,” says Alan Amling, VP of corporate strategy who leads this initiative.
“Pretty soon everywhere is going to be able to make everything,” opines Fishkin. “It could be the answer to 99% of the issues we’re having globally.”
Sea change from the C-suite
A great example of an enterprise-wide shift in strategy can be found in Jabil, a Florida-based manufacturer of, well, just about everything. About four years ago, the industrial giant’s C-suite signaled its commitment to 3D printing with the creation of Jabil Additive, an initiative charged with bringing additive manufacturing to the 50-year-old company.
“We started with about 80 people—professionals from Boeing, 3M and Amazon—with an interest in taking this relatively immature technology and making production parts,” says John Dulchinos, VP of digital manufacturing at Jabil.
Interest is an understatement. The Jabil Additive team strategically manages every element of the additive-manufacturing process. “We’re the first end-to-end, engineered-material integration and production sites for additive manufacturing in the world,” says Dulchinos. “We start with chemists and beakers on one end, and get filament and powders on the back end.”
Those materials are the lifeblood—and sometimes the taffy in the gears—of 3D printing, so bringing their production in-house was a key business decision. “Having a way to quickly produce new materials is a real accelerator for manufacturing.”
It also helps having buy-in from the top. Dulchinos credits Jabil leadership for recognizing that this project might disrupt existing business, but is important enough to generate momentum in a market that will ultimately be highly beneficial.
Additive hurdles, manufacturing wins
While overwhelmingly optimistic, those in the additive manufacturing space are not yet printing money. Challenges persist. Industry is lacking standards for quality, says the Additive Manufacturing Association’s Gebhardt.
Parts-certification is an ongoing issue—verifying that each piece coming out of a 3D printer is reliable.
The traditional manufacturing mindset is an anchor, according to the most enthusiastic early adopters. Fishkin adds that education is lacking. “Engineers need to figure out how to use this technology. And it is hard to find people trained on these machines.”
“The shift to 3D printing and digital manufacturing rewrites the rules of design, production and supply chains, and drives demand for new skills and jobs,” adds Schiller.
Staff training—or retraining—is a critical driver in additive-manufacturing adoption. Likewise, incentivizing employees at all levels to embrace this new approach is key. Additive manufacturing should benefit all stakeholders; all stakeholders should have a stake.
And, always, there are costs. New technology entails new investments—machines, software, personnel, training. But a strategic rollout of an additive-manufacturing plan should boost the bottom line. That’s the point after all…manufacturing additive income.
While this new technology is enabling a new approach to the very nature of producing items, it is also changing the broader business landscape. It’s early in this process, and we’re—quite literally—making things up as we go along.
But, like his peers, Fishkin envisions a not-too-distant future when 3D printing is commonplace. He dreams of retailers adopting what he labels “street-side production” in which they easily, affordably, immediately offer customers bespoke products right there at their store or, in the case of the custom-fit football helmets, right there on the sideline.