The Storm Before the Storm: Formnext Forum Austin Signals the Dizzying Year ahead for 3D Printing

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The additive manufacturing (AM) sector has been at a crossroads for years. Every time it seems like AM is about to finally have its breakout moment, macro conditions spontaneously coalesce to halt the sector’s mounting progress, pushing it two steps back from the step forward it has taken. Then, after the inevitable casualties are swept aside or absorbed, the sector regroups, starts to grow some more based on the lessons learned from the latest black swan…and soon enough finds itself facing a new set of obstacles.

What if the sector was given the opportunity for a year of uninterrupted progress? What would that look like? Formnext Forum Austin (August 29-30) indicated to me that a feast year will be even wilder than anything anyone has experienced in all the years of famine leading up to it. It also suggested that 2024 could be that year.

Fits and Starts

One of the most interesting things about the first version of Formnext Forum in North America is that, despite the fact that Austin was chosen as the launch city for the event — and thus presumably was being used as beta-testing for the new endeavor — the event will not be in Austin after this, at least not for the next couple of years. In 2024 and 2025 it will be in Chicago, first as part of the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in 2024 and then as a standalone event in 2025.

Image courtesy of Rick Neff via LinkedIn

Unintentionally, this pattern of fits and starts mirrors AM itself perfectly, highlighting how it has been forced into a discordant growth trajectory and how the organizations comprising the sector have adapted to every new moment and have made their decisions based on adapting to what were/are the best available choices at any given time. For instance, it is unlikely that anyone chose Austin for the rollout event because it’s beautiful in August, but quite oppositely likely did so because it’s difficult to book space for large events in a city like Chicago without multiple years of lead time, so Austin in August was what was available.

To stretch the analogy between the event and the sector it represents a little further, it’s perhaps a bit like how some 3D printing companies qualify metals for aerospace to show that their platforms can meet the most stringent regulations (“If this satisfies the aerospace requirements, it can satisfy all other requirements”). In other words, if you can pull off a trade show in Austin in August, imagine what you can do in Chicago in the springtime.

And amazingly, they pulled it off. Was it the smoothest ride? Certainly not, but trade shows never are, and this one faced the issues of being in what might as well have been the hottest place in the US on the days it was being held, with a setup that necessitated a not-insignificant amount of walking in a city(/country) that is not really designed for pedestrians.

A Good Time was Had by All

The success of this type event may not even be measurable by anything entirely quantifiable, but can only truly be gauged by the responses of those attending. If that is the bar, then Formnext Forum Austin crushed it. A particularly surreal example of that was the opening reception at Bangers Sausage House & Beer Garden. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a more intense combination of too hot and too loud in my life, but even I had a good time, and I don’t even drink.

Image courtesy of Peter Zelinski via LinkedIn

Held outside in temperatures of 100 degrees with the humidity, including live music that made both talking and listening physically straining, and catered with beer (for those who imbibe), bratwursts, and macaroni and cheese and creamed corn, as well as — preposterously — freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Somehow it all worked. People in the AM sector really do like being around each other. That matters!

This set the tone for the rest of the show, which had a noticeably social atmosphere: even inside the events center, it felt more like an indoor company barbecue surrounded by a bunch of presentations rather than a formal industry conference. Part of the reason for that no doubt had to do with the fact that this was the first year, so I would imagine that in the future, some of the looseness may be designed out — but I hope not too much of it, because my perception, at least, is that that’s one of the aspects people liked.

Why 2024?

If you’re wondering why I said at the beginning of the post that “2024 could be that year” of uninterrupted progress for AM, the main presentations provided a good deal of support for that theory. To be sure, there are more things happening in the sector that can be interpreted as supporting it, as well. As Formnext Forum Austin was taking place, for instance, Apple confirmed that the company would be using 3D printing on the Apple Watch Ultra, validating a rumor that started circulating in July.

Interestingly, contrary to the rumor, which involved internal components to be printed in titanium, the confirmed news was about binder jetting for external parts in stainless steel. This not only suggests that AM has become pivotal to the future of Apple’s watch supply chain, but also clearly opens up the door for the company’s branching out into use of AM for all the many diverse consumer electronics markets that Apple needs to maintain dominance in.

Image courtesy of Joy Gockel via LinkedIn

It would seem not entirely unrelated, in this respect, that Apple confirmed the news about using 3D printing for end-use consumer goods as Huawei was rolling out its new Mate 60 Pro phone. This development also happened while US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo was in China trying to smooth tensions about the US-China trade war, a conflict that appears to be on autopilot. The Huawei news sent observers of the US tech economy into a tailspin wondering how the Chinese company was able to produce a product that US sanctions should’ve rendered impossible, and the following week, China announced it was initiating bans on government workers using iPhones, echoing the Trump administration’s identical 2018 ban on US government workers using Huawei and ZTE phones.

None of this was being discussed directly at the event, although it is perhaps worth noting that I saw at least two Apple employees walking around the show floor. Moreover, indirectly, many of the main presentations touched on the same issues at the core of what looks to be an escalating phone war between the world’s two largest economies: logistics are more visibly at the forefront of the AM sector than they’ve ever been, and that seems likely to intensify over the next few years. Along those lines, reshoring seems poised to hit critical mass in 2024.

All this was confirmed most of all by two talks from the first day, “Additive Manufacturing and the US Space Industry: Where We Are Headed Next”, by Brandon Ribic from America Makes, and that day’s keynote, “Supply Chain Resiliency Through Rapid Qualification, Workforce Development, and Turnkey AM Solutions”, given jointly by Dr. Gregory Hayes from EOS and Matthew Sermon, Executive Director at Program Executive Office Strategic Submarines for the US Navy.

Ribic delivered an excellent breakdown of all the ways that America Makes, the original Manufacturing USA institute, is helping to streamline the US AM ecosystem by facilitating information-sharing, accelerating standardization, and growing the AM workforce. Ribic explained how this has been accomplished in the context of the space sector by “coordinating known stakeholder needs, establishing priorities, and leveraging collective intelligence/capabilities for applied learning”.

Three simple points made by Ribic captured the spirit of why organizations like America Makes, which have taken the lead in creating public-private partnerships in the US, are so integral to cultivating AM’s use as a logistical tool. First, “It’s not about what can I do, but about what can we do.” Stabilizing the logistical underpinnings of US supply chains cannot happen without a concerted effort involving a mobilization of all the available advanced manufacturing know-how in the US domestic ecosystem, know-how which is still few and far between.

The Velo3D team at Formnext Forum Austin. Image courtesy of Velo3D via LinkedIn

Second, “It’s not enough to do it once: we’ve got to be able to do it everyday.” The latest AM technologies clearly have to make the full transition from the laboratory to the production environment in order to deliver logistical gains that move the needle, and to do this, the technology has to be as reliable as any other production system. Relatedly, third, Ribic noted that, “The importance of materials and materials data is that it is accessible and that it can be reused.” The genuine scale-up of AM for production that is required in order for the technology to become a logistics game-changer can’t happen without there being in place a sufficient domestic supply chain for AM materials. That, in turn, will require the US AM sector to look more like a network of cooperating entities than like a battlefield of competing forces.

To be sure, the sector isn’t “there”, quite yet. On the other hand, the possibility that it is on its way there is supported by the facts that (1) all of the organizations necessary to facilitate those developments are already in the process of doing so, (2) there appears to be more political willpower than ever and genuine political action being taken to make those developments successful, and (3) let’s be realistic here, Joe Biden needs a huge, quick, demonstrable victory for his major policy platform in order to win in 2024.

What’s Needed: Workforce Development & Cybersecurity

Unlike in years past, the macro conditions are starting to look like exactly what the AM sector needs in order to gain new adopters, at a time when the underlying technology has matured enough to provide the confidence that incorporating AM into production won’t be prohibitively risky. Of course, the outlook can change quickly if enough unknowns hanging in the balance turn in the wrong direction, but at the moment the economy looks resilient, big corporations are still sitting on huge piles of cash and appear more willing to take risks than at any point in the prior few years, and the idea that AM is a future-facing technological solution worth betting on has been steadily gaining traction. The biggest variables standing in the way of a year of uninterrupted progress for the AM sector are workforce development and cybersecurity.

Workforce development is the hurdle that just keeps getting hurdlier, which is not surprising in a country that seems to have stopped deliberately training manufacturing workers sometime during the Reagan administration. In his keynote, Sermon pointed out that the submarine industrial base (SIB) “must be able to attract, hire, and train” 10,000 or so new members of the workforce every year to meet its production deadlines, while simultaneously improving retention of workers.

This may not sound like such a difficult task, but keep in mind that this is just one thing that one branch of the US military does, and the US manufacturing workforce shrank from 19 million in 1980 to an estimated just under 12 million in 2023, during a period when the US population grew by about 50 percent. Oh, and every other area of US heavy industry will be needing to grow its manufacturing workforce at the same time as the SIB is trying to do so — as Sermon also pointed out, there are currently 500,000 open manufacturing jobs in the US, a number expected to rise to 2.1 million by 2030. Not many ways to square that circle!

One of the things that could help get it done, however, would be for as much planned growth as possible in the broader manufacturing sector to happen in the areas with the greatest long-term potential for automation. But again, as with all the problems that US industry is facing, this isn’t a matter of just solving that one problem: among other things, the success of the next generation of automation infrastructure will depend on manufacturing’s compatibility with cloud-based software platforms. Here, the main concern will be cybersecurity, which is possibly the most critical reason why partners like the US Navy and America Makes are indispensable to harnessing the potential that can ensure the AM sector’s continued forward momentum.

At the same time, this is yet another issue that seems to provide equal opportunity to either keep AM stagnated in fragmentation, or serve as an organizing principle that can catalyze transformational partnerships. My hunch is that enough companies will be smart enough to see the writing on the wall and unite to jumpstart higher levels of intrasectoral cooperation, and that as a result, those companies will be elevated into leadership roles relative to the rest of the sector.

In this context, I found something told to me by Samuel Manning, the public relations manager at Markforged, especially enlightening. “We do need to band together, because the longer we’re fragmented and trying to push ourselves rather than the whole industry, we’re going to keep lagging,” Manning said, amidst a discussion I had with him about cybersecurity and digital supply chains. “I see a future where all of the [3D printing] OEMs will be working together in some capacity. …There’s never gonna be just one fish left. We might as well start working together now so that it’s easier down the road.” This is why no one should underestimate the importance of the camaraderie in the US AM sector that has been cultivated over the course of many years, something which was impossible to miss at Formnext Forum Austin.

Featured photo courtesy of Formnext Forum Austin

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