Additive Manufacturing Strategies

Implementing Additive Advantages: Why 3D Printing Fails

HP

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If we carefully look at the successful 3D printing applications, we can see some commonalities. We can also see relatively few clusters where we have been wildly successful. If we look deeper at dental, hearing aids, and rocket engines, we can find just a few examples where 3D printing has conquered entire industries. As we’ve seen in the first part of this series, we can divide up the successful clusters into small unique parts, drop-in parts, disruptive parts, and sidestep parts. These examples were discussed in the previous article. Now we will discuss Stacking which is the last bountiful cluster of business development success in 3D printing.

Why 3D printing application development (often) fails

Spacecraft Interface Bracket for an antenna.

Spacecraft Interface Bracket for an antenna. Image courtesy of Fusia.

With stacking, we can identify parts, applications, or areas of interest where we’ve, in fact, stacked a number of 3D printing advantages on top of one another to make for a supremely interesting business case. It is notable just how many of the really successful cases of millions of parts or billions of dollars in 3D printed parts use stacking. It is essential to notice this since so many 3D printing implementations fail. One major reason is that with 3D printing, you have a really big design and engineering space to operate in. We can make many shapes which often makes it difficult to discern which shapes make the most sense.

At the same time, the very many shapes and many ways we could design parts also confuses us through their sheer near-infinite possibility. 3D printing kind of works for everything and applies to a lot but works well for very few instances. In and of itself, this makes business and application development in 3D printing difficult. We also then have a finicky technology that is difficult to industrialize. Costs are often elevated, and people who know what they are doing are hard to come by. This leads to a far too optimistic undercapitalized less than a patient effort to do something doable that turns out to be expensive and complex. This is why 3D printing application development and industrializations in companies often fail. It’s not that they can’t do it but that they thought that it would be easier.

Free the Complex

A Thales Alenia-built SGDC communications satellite with 3D printed parts for Brazil.

A Thales Alenia-built SGDC communications satellite with 3D printed parts for Brazil. Image courtesy of Thales Alenia Space.

We have some pretty neat tricks, such as the infamous “complexity is free.” I’ve always seen this more as a curse. As in, “it’s nice that we’re telling them upfront that 3D printing will always be complex.” Because we build up our parts individually, QA and making millions of something is more difficult than what people are accustomed to. We can also almost always reduce component weight, for example.

Often what happens is this, I call it the “wow moment.” A team starts by searching for a part, project, or product to implement 3D printing. They find one that makes super cool-looking parts with lattices and bendy bits. They build a few parts, redesign a few times, and clamor round in delight at the ease of the iterations. They make a part, present it to the boss, she’s happy, everyone applauds and goes home. We’ve just made a million-dollar desk toy. It doesn’t live in the company, has an owner driving it forward, and will be blocked from actually getting made by everyone who cares about their bonus and sanity. For all intents and purposes, the project was a success.

The company made the part wanted to and demonstrated that it would work. However, they haven’t found the right part and were not skilled enough to apply enough AM advantageous elements to the part. So, even though it exists, the part is not profitable or advantageous enough to be a good business case. Now a lot of things could have gone wrong here. But, what went wrong is that the team selected the wrong part to begin with. A simple weight savings part would make a lot of sense on a satellite. In a submarine, a conformal part may also make sense. A timely part on an oil platform also will often make sense. But, we must realize that outside these critical space, critical mass, critical shape cases, you will need more than just one 3D printing advantage to be successful.

Stopping Too Early 

If we are on an Easter egg hunt, you would never stop after finding one egg. You know that there are more eggs out there, either for you or your colleagues and competitors to find. So in the thrill of acquisitiveness, the hunt, and competition, you will hunt on until told or assured that the eggs are exhausted. For some reason, often, opinions in companies coalesce very early on around one or two applications. Often with very little research, companies are sure that the impeller or the X100 battery is the right part, and further research is centered around that. Even if people come with entire lists of parts, the smart money has already picked the obvious. Now on a satellite, this could be the right part. If we have the heaviest bracket on a satellite in our hands, we should almost always improve it.

What’s more, that bracket is the most impactful and simplest thing we could work on. It’s perfect. But, this is only the case in very few critical cases where geometry, weight savings, or timeliness carry the day. In most things on this earth, the cost dependencies and performance outcomes mean that many other things will apply. For some parts, one critical advantage will shine through, but for many parts, we will need to stack advantages to win.

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