Back in the 3D printing dark ages, 2005, David Burns joined ExOne to make manufacturing using 3D Printing a reality. In the ensuing thirteen years a lot of things have changed. We’ve seen a lot of 3D printing companies come and go. In 2005 “3D printing for manufacturing” was cute and only a few solitary voices were crying out that this was going to happen, David’s was among them. He and ExOne were tackling quality control, reliability, and repeatability back then; and trying to make 3D printing an industrial process. They were starting to manufacture tens of thousands of low-cost metal parts for customers. They along with Voxeljet were the only metal inkjet companies as well, whereas now there are over a dozen people in various stages of commercializing metal inkjet 3D printing technologies. Entire choruses, unburdened by knowledge or experience, are now crying out that 3D printing for manufacturing is the future. David meanwhile, was doing the heavy lifting (and an IPO) while many of you had probably never heard of 3D printing. Now that he’s an independent board member, advisor and consultant its time for him to reflect on his time in the 3D printing trenches with some insightful answers to 3DPrint.com’s questions.
You came to 3D Printing in 2005 from a background in manufacturing. What was the 3D printing landscape like back then?
“In the life of products, 2005 seems like a century ago. We used to laugh, as we evangelized for this “ground breaking” technology, that people used to pat us on the heads and say ”oh, that sounds nice.” There is no doubt that in 2005, the general sentiment was that 3D printing was a curiosity and not a serious technological thrust. This impeded progress in many ways, not the least of which was that critical R&D dollars were slow to flow to 3D printing.”
“Oh, how the landscape has changed. The sentiment among end-users is no longer about “if we will succeed”, but rather a clear sense that “we will succeed”. On a global basis, we can see a determination (and almost desperation) to fund emerging ideas and to see them through to either success or failure. Of course, that applies as well to all of the supporting and enabling technologies that surround 3D printing, like software, materials, inspection, sensor technology, data transmission and storage, etc. Clearly, we need success in all aspects of this technology circle to develop simultaneously.”
What are the most significant improvements over the time frame?
“The last few years have seen the emergence of some pretty surprising innovations in 3D Printing itself. This includes a really impressive array of machine-based approaches, often combined with robotics and AI to fully integrate functionality within lines. And, there has been an interesting but quiet trend to “hybridize” traditional manufacturing technology approaches with additive approaches.”
There is still a lot holding back 3D printing in manufacturing today. What are some of the main issues?
“Well, one of the most important elements of an effective and robust manufacturing environment is a commitment to continuous improvement. So, in that context, I see two short term areas of focus that would really help.
The first would be investment in process stability. It has become a source of pride in many manufacturing environments that the basic deviation patterns of outcomes is well understood and controlled. Most 3D Printing lacks the basic process stability that is so necessary for volume production.
The second would be the need to extensively (and rapidly) expand the suite of material that can be effectively printed. The good news on the material side is that 3D Printing allows for new, customized materials to emerge.
I want to be sure that I make one point, though. I see these issues as eminently solvable. With a robust R&D funding environment, these basic challenges will be overcome. It is simply a function of the quantity and speed of investment that will determine how fast that we overcome them.”
QA seems very poorly developed in 3D printing?
“I want to change the language of that question a bit. Continuous improvement methodologies exist which can be directly applied to 3DP and to move it forward, in the QA sense. You can see mounting evidence that it works….but I do want to provide a caution here. We need entrepreneurs to understand that there are well-proven processes within manufacturing that cannot be ignored. I do worry, a bit, that some companies are trying to approach the industrial marketplace with little experience, or little sense of the long manufacturing journey toward optimization.
I do understand why it may feel as if QA is lagging in 3DP, since there are consistent deviations in even part-to-part characteristics. But, with the application of continuous improvement processes, and the injection of research dollars at the right time, these knotty problems are resolvable.”
In metals, a lot seems to be going on right now, with investment pouring in and much excitement. What are the companies that you are closely watching?
“Part of my work involves being a general advisor to AMT – The Association for Manufacturing Technology. But part of my time is allocated to providing advisement services directly to manufacturing companies, some of which are 3DP companies. So, it is probably not fair for me to specifically name companies that I find exciting. That said, manufacturing is a broad-based, global activity. I do tend to get excited by metal printing companies that are clearly focused on end-user needs, and not simply enamored by their own technologies. I also do not see the need for emerging companies to feel the need to print the toughest materials, in the toughest applications. There are a myriad of opportunities for companies that want to compete on the well-established measures for manufacturing – cost, quality, and on-time delivery.”
I’m a little more skeptical than most about binder jetting metals. Won’t shrinkage continue to be problematic? Or will they solve these issues?
“Well, questions about binder jetting hint at some of the things that we just discussed. Some binder jet companies are, in fact, looking to the MIM world for ideas about controlling the sintering process. And there are surely helpful answers there. Others have invested significant dollars and have found ways to increase density and lessen distortion. I think that offline sintering can pose a significant challenge – but that sufficient research can find innovative solutions. I am not entirely sure that the challenges posed by off-line sintering imply significantly more part-to-part variation than some of the other powder bed based processes. And I do see cost advantages in binder jetting. I think that there will be a healthy number of applications for which binder jet will be appropriate.”
We’re seeing new companies try to tackle low-cost metal parts. Which kinds of parts will be industrialized first?
“Well, the low-cost marketplace poses some challenges. Material and energy-related costs present initial hurdles that need to be overcome. That said, there are lots of parts which run in relatively low volumes and that require significant fixturing and changeover on traditional machines. These are good targets. As well, many of those sorts of parts have been sourced from remote locations, for reasons that we all understand. If we do a realistic analysis of true supply-chain costs, including communications, working capital, quality resolution, etc., then I see abundant opportunities for 3D Printing.”
Do you think that in the near term there will be direct competition between the new binder jetting companies and the DMLS (Powder Bed Fusion, Selective Laser Melting) companies?
“Perhaps not in the very near term. The strengths of each process are currently a bit different. That said, as more materials become available, and as the part-to-part consistency improves, competition will (and should) develop. Remember, the annual market for traditional manufacturing technology products (on a global basis) is between $90 – 100B. Inside of that is a massive market for machines. While some of those machines are for specialty purposes, the vast majority are “part agnostic”. That is, they can be used for a wide range of parts. I think that this is the inevitable evolutionary path for machines used for metal 3DP.”
How do you think the metal printing market will develop?
“I think that the answer to that may vary by region of the world. In the US, which imports massive numbers of metal parts from other places, I think that the acceleration will be rapid. I can easily see where service bureaus that have broad-based capabilities (including traditional processes, inspection, and certification) will grow very rapidly, as the supply chain adjusts to the power of integrated digital manufacturing technologies. I think that OEM’s may invest more slowly than service bureaus, but it does not matter. What matters is that the supply transitions to embrace these new, integrated manufacturing technologies. In other countries, the transitional challenge may be different. In countries that are heavily invested in manufacturing infrastructure, the decision to disinvest in their well proven, highly capitalized processes could be harder. Clearly, the emergence of product offerings that are full lines (many recently) are reactions to the challenge of displacing well-developed, effective manufacturing processes.”
Whats the thing that surprised you most in 3D printing?
“That is a hard question. I became interested in, then immersed in, 3DP quite a long time ago. I perhaps saw the immense potential, from a high-level perspective. But, with a background in traditional manufacturing (which is quite effective and which I greatly respect), it was not clear how 3DP would ever become robust enough to displace that traditional structure. Especially when I thought about the immense quantity of investment that would be required. I think that a key transitional element has become the willingness of OEM’s to take a leadership role in the development of advanced manufacturing technologies. In the past, these same companies were relatively content to allow the supply chain to evolve manufacturing technologies. Nowadays, you have end users directly involved in funding and guiding that development. The final surprise, for me, is actually how powerful this combination of software, hardware and materials can be in changing our world. The applications that have emerged and are stunning and make the world a better place. I cannot wait to see what happens next.”