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Streamlining 3D Printing: HP’s Global Head of Polymers Discusses the AM I Navigator Initiative

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As happens every year at Formnext, the world’s largest 3D printing trade show, a number of different significant product launches, mergers, and other announcements took place at Formnext 2023. Perhaps the most unique announcement, and certainly the one that intrigued me the most, was the Additive Manufacturing Industrial Navigator (AM I Navigator) Initiative.

AM I Navigator is a collaboration between Siemens, DyeMansion, BASF Forward AM, EOS, and HP, aiming to create a model for AM technical standardization at the level of the whole enterprise. Based on a scale of 1 to 5, with ‘1’ defined as ‘Basic’ and ‘5’ defined as ‘Autonomous’, AM I Navigator has two main goals: to create a universal framework for assessing the technical maturity of a given organization’s AM capabilities, as well as to help accelerate the assessed organizations’ AM maturity.

I spoke with Francois Minec, the Global Head of Polymers for HP’s Personalization and 3D Printing Business, to find out more about the project:

“With the AM I Navigator, we try to take into account all the aspects of what it takes to scale additive manufacturing, so we can guide customers in their journey of scaling the technology,” Minec began. “At HP, our equipment is for production. The idea is to cultivate a customer base where each customer owns many printers and deploys them on an industrial scale. But the printer is just one element in that process. So, for us, it helps to have a framework in place that enables us to explain to customers, depending on their objectives with AM: you would need this kind of know-how internally, you would need this kind of software, that kind of post-processing equipment. Especially in 2024, we’re anticipating a year of acceleration for manufacturing, adding to the importance of the timing for AM I Navigator.”

According to the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) in December 2023 remained below 50 for the 14th straight month. A PMI of below 50 indicates a contraction in manufacturing, and this is the longest such streak since 2000-2002. The PMI is based on surveys of manufacturers, and according to Reuters, “manufacturers were mostly downbeat” in December.

Francois Minec, the Global Head of Polymers for HP’s Personalization and 3D Printing Business. Sant Cugat del Valles 16/6/22 – HP. Mar Hernández – Photo: Vicens Gimenez / HP

On the other hand, Reuters also noted, “The persistent decline in the PMI likely overstates the weakness in manufacturing… Orders for long-lasting manufactured goods are up strongly on a year-on-year basis and factory production has held up…” Additionally, when one looks back at the US economy during the last similar downturn in the PMI, it was followed by an equally impressive rebound in the subsequent years. It is also important to consider that historically, contractions in manufacturing often indicate changes to an economy’s core manufacturing techniques and product-mix output.

I brought up the ambiguous data and mixed sentiments to Minec, specifically in the context of asking if he thinks that trends that have been bad for the manufacturing sector at-large could in fact be positive for AM:

“When you’re in uncertain times,” Minec said, “you want to be able to limit the size of your investment in new products. Let’s say you’re trying to sell a new consumer electronics product, for instance. Manufacturers who find themselves in that situation — not knowing what the initial demand is going to be like — are eager to find ways to launch that new product in lower volumes than they would when the economy is booming. This is one area of serial production where AM is already helping. It allows enterprises to be much faster in terms of the lead-up to product launches, and much more versatile in terms of how they execute those launches.”

At the same time as awareness of AM’s benefits seems to be increasing, there is, of course, quite a gap between surface-level awareness, and the ability to deploy a cutting-edge technological ecosystem across a business’s entire operations. The demand for expertise that can deliver exactly that is what AM I Navigator was created to fulfill. The fact that the initiative involves companies possessing such a thorough end-to-end familiarity with AM suggests that AM I Navigator could do much to standardize the incorporation of AM into legacy manufacturing enterprises:

“Siemens, together with DyeMansion, started AM I Navigator, and they asked us, BASF, and EOS to join, in order to make it a truly industry-wide initiative. It’s good to have two competitors — HP and EOS — collaborating on a joint project, and the idea is to open it up to more participants. If that happens, I think the project can potentially lead to increased standardization in the future.

“Increased standardization, in turn, would further reinforce the ease of AM adoption for new customers. While AM is obviously a smaller world than conventional manufacturing, it is still a big field. It’s a process which involves many different functions in a manufacturing organization. You’re going to need to have your software adapted to it, as well as the workforce that can handle both software and hardware, and all the peripheral equipment because again, when you’re using AM for mass production, the printer is just one element. That’s what the journey to scale-up entails, and it’s something that HP has done ourselves for a few verticals, with the goal being to teach our customers. Once you learn it yourself, you can transfer the know-how, and that’s the same idea behind AM I Navigator.”

Representatives of the AM I Navigator companies.

Alongside the need to accelerate AM standardization, the central objectives of AM I Navigator get at what may be an even more urgent task for the industry in 2024 and beyond: workforce development. Indeed, the know-how that the companies involved may have the greatest competency in is the know-how entailed in building an AM workforce:

“Workforce development is one part,” Minec explained, “and the other part is to ensure that the level of readiness of the organization is aligned with the end goal of the customer. There’s a good parallel here to the technology readiness levels [TRL] scale used by the US government: TRL addresses the relevant issues equipment by equipment, whereas AM I Navigator addresses them in terms of entire technological ecosystems. What we want to make sure is that every capability involved is at the same readiness level. If you have fully automated printers, but the post-processing is fully manual, for instance, that doesn’t make sense. So, let’s not try to sell a fully automated printer to somebody whose capabilities are fully manual in other areas.

Ideally, organizations build up their AM capabilities from small prototyping to small-scale production, to incorporating more mature functions, step by step, as the overall capability improves equally end-to-end. What AM I Navigator aims to achieve is that on that journey, the organization grows the know-how of everyone in the workforce around the whole change, from software to post-processing.”

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