The Future of Additive Manufacturing 3.0? – AMS Speaker Spotlight


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Industrial Manufacturing 4.0

When introduced, new ideas, new processes, and new technologies are usually met with a “wow” reaction. Unfortunately, mainstream skepticism often turns the “wow” into a “whoa.” Most times, it takes a while for the ideas to be validated and truly embraced. In its roughly 12 years of existence, true industrial 3D printing (additive manufacturing, or AM) has followed that same model of “wow” followed by a gradual acceptance by some and continued skepticism by many. Educating the skeptical organizations on how to prepare for AM, integrate it into their existing processes, and be successful is the burden we bear as an industry. At least until AM reaches the tipping point where it becomes integrated, accepted, and relied upon.

We may have just reached a tipping point

The COVID-19 crisis was a warning shot – both directly and indirectly. Directly, because while our medical community fought on the frontlines trying to combat and hopefully prevent the spread of this pandemic, we in the manufacturing world were tasked with providing them with equipment to treat the virus, while at the same time empowering them to stay. But as is widely reported, there were gaps in our ability to respond with the hardware needed to assist the medical community. Specifically, shortages of protective personal equipment (PPE) and respirators were in the spotlight. This battle with COVID-19 shone a spotlight on our ability (or lack of) to make more of what is most important, exactly when it is needed.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis triggered another existential problem. Suddenly the world was faced with a supply chain crisis with bottle necks disrupting the networks of people, companies, and modes of transport key to keeping us in motion. Supply chain vulnerability illuminated the need for a more flexible, agile way of making things we rely on.

Among those who recognize the need for supply chain resiliency and optimal design capabilities are major companies in space, defense, medical, and energy where AM is playing a critical role in production. Interestingly, all branches of the military have adopted AM to help establish more agile, topical manufacturing capabilities that overcome traditional supply chain challenges and improve battlefield readiness.

From just in case to just in time

Despite its name, additive manufacturing is not really a manufacturing strategy. AM is an enterprise strategy.

The old way of preparing for the unpredictable would be enormous warehouses filled with equipment and parts “just in case” a crisis was to occur. This tactic is a wasteful, expensive approach to a problem that may or may not ever occur. What AM brings is digital inventory: parts or products that can be made as needed, when needed. Thus, meeting the requirements to fill production gaps that would take older, traditional production processes much longer to ramp up.

While the number of organizations with AM capabilities is increasing, there remains a reluctance from most companies to fully commit. The consequence is an under-capacity issue that limits our ability to fully leverage the potential of a transformational technology. Our ability to quickly distribute validated digital files to a massive network of industrial 3D printers that can churn out the applications and equipment needed will have massive positive effects.

The future is unpredictable

The next crisis is going to happen. Arguably, it is happening right now. The disgraceful war in the Ukraine is straining energy supplies and increasing defense equipment demands. We cannot possibly predict the consequences, but it not hyperbole to say that robust industrial 3D printing can help to reduce risks. Will what we as an AM community have preached for years finally be better received by manufacturing organizations and governments? The sermon usually includes:

  • Mass customization
  • Production on-demand, spares on-demand
  • Localized sourcing
  • Simplified logistics and digital supply chains
  • Sustainable and efficient production

With COVID-19 our needs were clearly defined and as humans we scrambled to respond. Manufacturing cannot cure a virus or stop a war. But global supply chains and complex logistics that features far-flung mega-factories have received a wake-up call. While we deal with our current challenges, it’s time to get real about where AM fits into manufacturing – both in times of crisis, and times of normality.

As traditional manufacturing now catches up with the supply chain collapse, to prevent a repeat collapse, it’s imperative to seriously assess where AM fits in your supply chain. AM would not have prevented COVID-19, but a mature AM environment would certainly have changed how we responded. Widespread AM adoption will not prevent our supply chain woes entirely, but it will certainly have a positive impact on how we are able to combat the inevitable uncertainty of change.

Glynn Fletcher, President of EOS North America, will be participating at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2023 Business and Networking Summit, which takes place in New York City February 7 – 9, 2023. Glynn will be participating in the Special Presentation: AM Executive Panel: The Future of AM, taking place on February 9. Register for AMS 2023 here

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