RIP 3D Printing. Long Live AM!


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As we read our good friend Joris Peels’ recent series “RIP 3D Printing”, we couldn’t help but conjure up the famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Bring out your dead!  But I’m not dead yet.”  3D printing isn’t dead per se.  There has always been confusion as to what is 3D printing and how it fits in with the related, but quite different, Additive Manufacturing (AM).  3D printing was a design solution.  AM is a manufacturing solution.

Wait, aren’t they the same thing?  No, not really.  3D printing is mostly about making geometric shapes and “printing” designs.  This mindset carried over into the first definition of AM: “the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data (ASTM F27972-12a).”  This definition stood for nearly a decade but was changed in 2021 to reflect that AM is “the process of joining materials to make parts from 3D model data (ISO/ASTM 52900:2021[E]).”  This change may seem small, but the implications are big.

AM uses 3D printing technology to make parts.  AM of metals, however, can be a complex, process-intensive value chain where the 3D printed shape is often less than half the cost of the final end-use part.  Metallic parts can have significantly more requirements than their polymeric pals.  Metal 3D printing is finally blossoming from those super awkward teenage years into an adult.  And who doesn’t want to forget their awkward teenage years?  So yes, RIP 3D printing!

In the tumultuous pre-teen and teen years, the printer manufacturers provided leadership and guidance for the fledgling industry.  They were the source of innovation, and we watched as single laser systems turned to twins and then quads.  New members of the 3D printing family also began to emerge as more printing technologies were born and matured to make metallic parts.  And like all families, some members were late bloomers—directed energy deposition, we’re looking at you!

It was palpable at Formnext this year.  Up to now, it’s been about the printer and what it can do, but to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” The “there” is end-use parts, made by manufacturers.  AM must compete against all forms of manufacturing, not just other types of 3D printing.

Making parts is hard.  It is about requirements and consistency—the exact opposite of the disruption we celebrate when innovating.  The same as the cool teenager who turns into a boring adult.  Disruptive during school yet preparing to face the real world.  The world of manufacturing.  Fortunately for us, the AM world of manufacturing is safe, efficient, sustainable, and a pretty good place to work.  But paradigm shifts can be a challenge and difficult for those who have invested their time and energy.

A Paradigm Shift

Seth Godin recently wrote in his blog, “A paradigm is our mental model of the world. We’re surrounded by people who share a similar model, and as long as the model is working, we live our lives without thinking much about it.”  Over the last few years, the fuel driving 3D printing was largely Venture Capital and Angel funding.  That paradigm espoused endless innovation coming from the printer companies: faster processes, bigger printers, more materials.  Having become enthralled with our own technology, we didn’t think too much about it; but now that the improvements are incremental and predictable, value creation is where innovation resides.

At past Formnexts, the refrain was increasingly, “where’s the innovation?”  The innovation was shifting.  It started around 2017 when R&D budgets started drying up.  It was time to reap some return on the investment.  This need drove more conversations about parts, part requirements, and now today, everyone seems to be chasing the holy grail of “qualification.”

Constant progress was occurring, yet fame became elusive.  For example, a 30-micron layer with a singular set of parameters used to be standard. The printer manufacturer gave them to us, and it worked, but it also was expensive. Printer manufacturers did not own part requirements; so, we needed part manufacturers to drive innovation.  Once the industry shifted to making parts with AM, the requirements drove thicker layers, using contouring and other laser scanning schemes, which meant we could be varying parameters constantly.  Our mental models of parameters was disrupted.  A whole new digital world emerged around those of us who grew up with analog.

Humans are still getting used to the digital world.  We both had a “wireless” tv growing up.  As many as five channels came to the television for free!  Digital is the easy part.  Naturally, this fueled investment in digital technologies that make stuff, a.k.a., 3D printing.  But digital manufacturing is hard.  There is infinite data – not information.  Digital, like the process parameter example, can be varied constantly on an infinite number of channels, not what part manufacturers want to hear.

AM’s digital nature maximizes value through dynamic parameters, machine learning, and other approaches that are bound by physics, metallurgy, and the physical world.  Unfortunately, we fear what we don’t know, and then we try to control it.  Just like parents trying to control their teenagers, we use what we know, a “fixed process” rooted in the old paradigms that guided us in our youth.

False Economy

The pandemic helped bring the benefits of AM into focus.  In the post COVID years, global inflation meant 3D printing investments competed against simply keeping money in an interest-bearing account.  The benchmark for investing suddenly shifted, and all this plentiful money got harder to get.  There was also a lot more competition.

“Cheap” money created a false economy for 3D printing.  Service bureaus and investor-fueled companies that once relied on the global supply base used that money to buy printers and bring the capability in-house.  Printers proliferated around the world as governments made grants to universities and national labs to investigate what could be done with these innovative devices.  This fuel wasn’t predicated on actual revenue from services.  There were a lot of 3D printers going under-utilized, creating a false sense of economic growth.

End result: the currency of 3D printing was inflated.  This is nothing new nor is it mal intentioned.  To Joris’ point, if you check out the share prices and value creation of publicly traded AM companies, it isn’t great…so far…but we’re not dead yet.  Investing in manufacturing is a long-term proposition, even when it is digital.

Video Killed the Radio Star

3D printing is the child actor we watched grow up.  We had pictures of the latest printers on our walls.  They were the cool kids we aspired to be.  They had lots of cash and threw great parties.  Fortunately, the 3D printing world was, and is, inherently friendly and welcoming, but to continue the analogy, not all child actors succeed in the long run.  Expectations grow as you get older, and the cute catchphrase as a pre-teen won’t get you very far as an adult.  Being cool is not enough to succeed as an adult.

#Adulting for 3D printing is making real parts.  Requirements define what the parts need to do.  Qualification defines how to preserve and pedigree the materials, processes, parts, and data during manufacturing.  Together, they provide the guardrails within which part manufacturers must operate.  Prescribing what must occur in between works about as well as parents trying to control everything their teenagers do.  Frustration ensues, and innovation slows to a crawl as the focus shifts to consistent, repeatable, and reliable part production.

But then 3D printing gave birth to metals, and suddenly we thought AM could do everything!  This made 3D printing cool again, and large investments followed.  Unfortunately, when you can do anything, you achieve nothing.  Economies of scale are tough to beat and have dominated manufacturing decisions since the days of Henry Ford.  This paradigm has prevailed for over a century, and rightfully so.  Large investments need long periods of return to justify the expense, and steady streams of standardized parts guarantee high returns with little risk.  It reinforces existing paradigms and hinders growth.  But business models can be disrupted.

Discussion: So, what have we learned?

As we flip through our high school yearbook, we look fondly back at the rapid change we saw in the industry growing up.  It’s healthy.  It’s the way it was always going to be.  The teenager matures into an adult.  A good investment grows over time.  We have learned along the way, and now as young adults, it is time for 3D printing to mature into AM and help solve real problems—in manufacturing.

There are many, many problems in today’s world.  Western economies are built on innovation and creative destruction.  As we grow old and lose the expertise to perform certain types of manufacturing, we don’t just wander off.  We adapt, and we work with the younger generation to deploy new technologies.  Those happen to be digital now, and today’s youth are the digital natives.  We adults are digital immigrants, struggling with the myriad of social “channels” and digital opportunities available now compared to our analog youth.

We have under-valued manufacturing for far too long in the U.S.  Like the teenager who isn’t jaded and doesn’t know any better, maybe AM provides the breath of fresh air needed to capitalize on the possibilities of these new digital technologies and make wise decisions about where to invest in the new paradigm.  One where AM, and related advanced/digital manufacturing technologies, flourishes by adding value and making parts better.  It’s about finding new pathways that many struggle to comprehend in the old mental model.

The paradigm of mass production has served us well for over a century and will continue to find a home in many industries for many products.  AM enables a paradigm shift for parts, products, and companies that did not make sense within the previous mental model.  The goal should not be to replicate economies of scale with AM; the goal should be finding opportunities where the value proposition of AM yields a competitive advantage that traditional manufacturing cannot offer or where we’ve lost capability, and expertise, or simply don’t have the human resources.

3D printing isn’t dead.  It’s just time for it to grow up, move out of the house, and get a job!  If you haven’t found your niche yet, don’t panic.  Go find ways that AM can help manufacturers save time, reduce cost, or improve quality right now within traditional manufacturing processes.  The inefficiencies are endless because the old paradigm still clouds our thinking.  Remember the creativity of your youth and find where AM adds value—in manufacturing, design, you name it.

Long live AM!

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