Scars and Bruises: Business Development Success in 3D Printing

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We know now the general advantages of using 3D printing. When trying to commercialize a new material, technology, or application, a lot of people seek out these advantages laser-like to serve as a foundation upon which to build their business cases. However, a lot of these business cases later fail because people were a little too optimistic or our technology was a tad too limited at the time.

How do we increase the success rate of new 3D printing applications? How do we take an old way of thinking and redo it with additive manufacturing (AM)? How do we let 3D printing work inside of a business? How can we incubate something and then take it out into the real world?

Generally, there are lots of answers to the questions above, but the most sure-fire way to increase success rates is to pick the right applications. At the very beginning of the process, this is where the expensive mistakes are made. When you don’t know anything and a list on a whiteboard becomes the next six months of your life, this is when your calm, happy brain, all woken up by the fun brainstorm, will take a cheese grater to the face. A warm fuzzy groupthink and a few choice words will lead your opinion to coalesce around a few choices. And then you will commit to these naïve choices, dig in, and wrestle with the problem.

Half-a-year later, you’ll come to the conclusion that the part is too expensive. Not only was the initial target application wrong, but, in the end, you came to a foregone conclusion. In almost all cases, the part is going to be too expensive. It would be like Henry Ford developing a production line and trying to dump all of the costs on the first vehicle made on that line. And, yeah, the industrialization of new materials i most cases, applications, and industries fail initially.

Bent and bruised as I am, I will share my scars with you. I will walk you around a map of the things that took me a lot of time to learn. I hope that you will profit from my turn-by-turn navigational guide to skirting disaster.

Top-down 3D printing implementations almost never work.

If the CEO wants it and everyone else is going to be diverted from their targets by enabling it, it will not work. If the people that have to implement it see or gain no advantage from it, it won’t work.

Obtaining buy-in is the most crucial part.

In a large company, obtaining buy-in from all of the relevant people and management layers is absolutely crucial. If you don’t do it sufficiently, you will either get shot down, run out of money, or you will spend a year of your life essentially making a desk toy that gathers dust.

Start with the most expensive parts.

If you can list your most expensive parts or your most critical components that will also be expensive when they fail, these are good target candidates for new applications and designs. It seems obvious, but it’s a great way to start.

Don’t do what everyone else is doing.

A lot of people are focusing on the same leaders at the same car companies or the same six people in aviation. You can find a lot more success in looking at Tier 1 suppliers or below, where there has been little budget and comparatively little is being done in additive. Also, there are many industries outside of the main four that everyone focuses on.

Sidestep the problem.

Your first part should be silly and expendable: perhaps a desk toy, a holder, a demo thing, a simple thing. It’s just about getting everyone to go through the process and understand additive. We tend to fail harshly in the bright lights of corporate prime time.

If you think it’s cool everyone else will.

If you love impellers, heat sinks, meshes and nozzles right now, everyone else does too. If you’re interested in foaming nozzles or foaming materials or composites, then probably everyone else is too. We have a hive mind. Zig while others zag, you’ll find many more listening ears and much more progress if you try applications that others have not tried or are ignoring.

Start with an enabling part.

Rather than try to wiggle your way into an ongoing development of a new product, perhaps make a part to repair an old one. Or find an upgrade part that can add value to your customer’s installed base. Or do a special limited edition part or something to help close a sale. This way you’re not threatening anyone, replacing anyone’s work, or endangering a project upon which many careers rest. You’re bringing value and making new things possible within a limited sandbox.

Teach.

Often we’re on the back foot, trying to argue against CNC, a technology that has defined our counter-party’s career and experience. Rather than try to sell against a good technology or ruffle feathers, teach. Giving courses, workshops, and classes make for a less confrontational path. Everyone likes to learn and you can parlay your useful teaching into projects people actually want to do.

Be honest.

3D printing is finicky, annoying, and we have low repeatability, reliability, and accuracy compared to a lot of other technologies. They will find this out when they buy a machine or try to produce anything, so do be honest from the get-go. I’ve found that saying that your own technology sucks builds credibility.

Stack the advantages of AM.

I’ll go into this more deeply in another post, but a single main advantage on a part (e.g., weight saving) isn’t going to cut it. Keep searching until you have a part or application where you can stack the benefits of several advantages on top of each other.

Always try a service first.

There is no point buying a machine quickly. You may have the wrong system or you may not need it at all. It will take the operations team months to get the equipment started. Avoid having to sell a business a magical box that is underutilized, but sell them a working solution instead.

Ramp them up.

If you’re an OEM, set them up with a service provider to grow from zero to the volume that they need for a machine to make sense. You can aid them—and bill them—for training, assist in qualifying parts, help with QMS, etc. You can be a single port of call for their AM implementation and/or partner with a constellation of firms to get them up and running quicker.

Be realistic about costs.

For some weird reason, some people avoid discussing the costs of parts or having a machine. Other OEM, materials suppliers, and services are very upfront about this. I really think that the latter approach is the right one. Being realistic means that your internal champion won’t get crushed if you fail to deliver.

Kill it if it doesn’t work.

Often a proof of concept scrapes by and people who are very sales-motivated push and shove to make a technology fit somewhere where it is not made to work. Killing such projects and honestly saying that it won’t work saves everyone a lot of time. It will give you time to sell elsewhere and not leave some disillusioned people behind spreading negative news about you.

Images: Marcell Mars, Alexander Rackoczy. Maryland Gov Pics.

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