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ICAM 2022: 3D Printing Engineers Need More ($$$)!

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The engineers and technicians have gotten the additive manufacturing (AM) sector to where it is now. It’s up to investors and policymakers to take the next step in bringing the industry forward.

Based on everything I heard from all the people on the sector’s frontlines, that was my main takeaway from ASTM’s International Conference on Additive Manufacturing (ICAM) in Orlando, Florida. No one phrased it quite like I did in the first paragraph, of course: the individuals on AM’s purely technical side are far too rational and task-oriented, to presume to dictate to others how they should do their jobs.

Nevertheless, the discussions that revolved around the conference’s central themes, especially automation and certification of parts, left me with a strong sense that the experts behind AM’s recent mechanical evolution are restless and hungry for direction from the sector’s investment and policy-making spheres. One engineer from a major aviation firm summed up the problem in a particularly straightforward way. He noted — to paraphrase — “The technology is there, and what we need now are ideas about the best ways to use it.”

Terry Wohlers, head of advisory services and market intelligence at Wohlers Associates, also indirectly hit on the same general point in his keynote address. After a characteristically sober delineation of the real gains the sector has made in bouncing back from the mid-2010s post-desktop-hype crash, Wohlers noted that there is at least one area of the sector that is still in need of drastic improvement: talent.

Both problems — ideas on the best ways that AM ecosystems can be deployed, as well as the sheer necessity for an influx of quality labor — have to be solved primarily by the sector’s non-technical side. Thus, investors and policymakers who are interested in the success of AM’s scale-up need to be ready in the very near future to take major actions and make serious commitments in that direction. (They can gain some ideas for those actions by attending AM Investment Strategies on Thursday, November 10, 2022.)

To be sure, sudden and giant leaps forward are, in large part, contrary to the fundamental premise that underlies the technology’s value to the existing economy: risk management. That is, how can AM be quickly incorporated into real-world supply chains at a large enough scale to truly make a difference, and at the same time, avoid becoming a contributor to the same problems it’s meant to fix? There are no easy answers to that question, and no more solutions that can be reached by trying to perfect the technology just a little more under laboratory conditions.

Against that background, it increasingly seems like less and less of an accident that AM has been forced to prove itself first in the sectors where the most is on the line. As has long-since become commonplace, the aerospace, automotive, and energy sectors were the most represented fields amongst all the ones with a presence at ICAM. But the attendance of all those groups, at this particular moment in the sector’s history, and at a conference specifically having to do with industrial standards, shed new light for me on just how “ready” the technology truly is.

If AM has proven itself under (mostly) laboratory conditions in sectors where lives and the environment are most potentially at-risk, then the technology is surely deserving of deployment under real-world conditions where the only risk being taken is the risk of one’s wares not appealing to consumer preferences as much as conventional manufactures. In other words, policymakers and investors need to be willing to fund and otherwise support the risk, at least in consumer goods sectors, of large-scale serial production with AM.

If the technology is truly as disruptive as all of its advocates claim, then this seems like the bare minimum that one should have to put at stake, in order to reap the benefits. Fund more apprentices for the engineers and technicians, and be willing to go zealously to market with products that tout innovation as a main selling point. Help the people who know how to make the technology work, know what it is that they should be working on. Given what they’ve accomplished so far, chances are that such endeavors will pay dividends. Not every project will succeed, but the ones that do will have more than deserved it.

Images courtesy of ASTM International

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