Back to the Grind: It’s Time for the Additive Manufacturing Industry to “Collaborate” and “Do the Hard Work”

Additive manufacturing can and should be a stable manufacturing method—not merely a disruptive technology, say industry leaders.

Daphne Allen

July 3, 2024

9 Min Read
Rapid+TCT executive panel on Additive manufacturing 3D printing
Speaking in Rapid+TCT’s “Executive Perspectives” keynote panel discussion were (from left) moderator Laura Griffiths, head of content for TCT; Savi Baveja, president of personalization and 3D printing for HP; Shai Terem, president and CEO of Markforged; Fried Vancraen, chairman of the board for materialise; Nils Niemeyer, general manager for DMG Mori; and Avi Reichental, cofounder and CEO of Nexa3D. Daphne Allen

There’s no doubt that additive manufacturing is cool. It seems that every week we share an exciting new achievement or capability. So, here’s the tough question—is it “boring” enough to become a go-to manufacturing method?

At the recent Rapid+TCT 2024 show in Los Angeles, additive manufacturing technology providers—most notably some industry veterans—said it’s time for the industry to “do the hard work” and make additive manufacturing a “stable, reliable manufacturing method.” And that means focusing on standards, testing, collaboration, etc. Not just the exciting disruptions.

Leaders from five major additive manufacturing companies came together in the June 26 “Executive Perspectives” keynote panel discussion to examine strategies for advancing the industry. Panelists included Nils Niemeyer, general manager for DMG Mori; Savi Baveja, president of personalization and 3D printing for HP; Shai Terem, president and CEO of Markforged; Fried Vancraen, chairman of the board for materialise; and Avi Reichental, cofounder and CEO of Nexa3D. The discussion was moderated by Laura Griffiths, head of content for TCT.

Where Is Additive Manufacturing Today?

Most applications for additive come from working with customers, explained Reichental of Nexa3D. “Customers have problems—they aren’t always able to fully articulate how to solve them, but they can tell you where the pain points are,” he said. Recent projects have revealed the need for spare parts or aftermarket parts, because “they are unable to find the original tools or it’s economically prohibitive to put them on a press or run a limited series of injection molding,” he added. Reichental also described providing systems for use in conflict zones such as Ukraine. “That’s where you see the power of 3D printing with functional materials that serves a real need.”

Related:Materialise and ArcelorMittal Partner to Enhance Metal 3D Printing

Vancraen of materialise said companies should find applications “where we can create added value for a better and healthier world.” He said his company’s biggest profit generator has been providing personalized implants for 50,000 people. “3D printing has been the enabler. Actually, it’s a lot of hard work convincing and industry, patients, and doctors that custom implants can for certain applications . . . convert multiple surgeries into one surgery,” he said. “This is being done at large scale today because the medical industry is now more and more becoming personalized. It is a complete shift in the way that healthcare is looking at the benefits and it’s thanks to additive manufacturing that this shift has happened,” he said.

Related:HP Advances Its HP Metal Jet and HP Jet Fusion 3D Printers

Griffiths of TCT asked the panel why SMEs should adopt additive manufacturing, and Niemeyer of DMG Mori pointed to Vancraen’s example showing how the industry “is changing lives and making a positive impact in the world.” 

But Niemeyer acknowledged that for SMEs, there’s a risk to adopting additive manufacturing. So, SMEs and business owners “must be risk takers—every time [they] launch into additive manufacturing, it’s like starting a new business. If I am running a machine shop today, then I know how to handle metal . . . . If I go into additive, I need to understand how to handle powders and other peripherals. I need dedicated operators and designers. So, we have to understand as an industry that if we want to be successful, we need acknowledge the risk that it takes to invest and go into this industry.”

The good news is that these SMEs—Niemeyer also called them “entrepreneurs”—know that “it’s OK to fail and pivot and come up with a better solution . . . and the moment an SME adopts additive, they often find more applications, use cases, and ROI when they start working with the technology and understanding it better."

Reichental said that additive manufacturing has enabled privatization of space as well as customization of implants. He pointed to the “incredible advancements that our technology in the right applications is unlocking.”

Related:Protolabs 3D Printing Report Shows Growth Exceeding $28B

However, additive manufacturers themselves are facing challenges. Reichental said that “we also have to ask ourselves how do we capture some of that value so that our group of innovators and entrepreneurs who have spent a lifetime developing this technology also achieve profitability and sustainability? . . . . We have not been able to capture enough value ourselves. . . . This industry has not reached that level of profitability, although we’ve created some of the best, most profitable businesses like Invisalign, SpaceX, and other companies that are using the very capabilities that we powered them with,” he said. 

Becoming That Go-To Manufacturing Method

For additive manufacturing to become a fully scalable manufacturing method—and perhaps more widely adopted—there’s some hard work ahead of technology providers. “Scaling to production is hard and takes a lot of things that are boring,” said Baveja of HP. “Things we often don’t think about in the additive industry . . . like, if it scales for production, the process needs to be stable and repeatable. If you run the machine a thousand times the same part needs to come out, and if you run it across 20 machines, the same part needs to come out. It needs to be extremely safe . . . it needs to have automation . . . and it needs to be able to go down the cost curve over time. . . . it’s hard work.”

For applications that really scale to hundreds or thousands of parts, “it’s a grind—you have to work through all the issues that any manufacturing person has to work through to really deploy a process into production,” Baveja added.  

Terem of Markforged said that “we as an industry are turning a corner. We talk about prototyping, and probably almost every company in the world is using additive for prototyping, so it’s at the mass adoption stage. For factory floor applications, we are in a stage of growth.” He added that the technology is much more solid now, easy to use, and reliable.

But it is also important to manage expectations with additive manufacturing. 

“You can do a lot more with additive manufacturing—but it is harder to scale,” acknowledged Baveja, adding, “I wonder if we spend enough time thinking about TCO. . . . We need to continue to drive down TCO to grow the market.” 

It’s Time to Engage Designers and Support the Factory Floor

Panelists expressed the need to educate design engineers and others about additive manufacturing.

Vancraen said more people should “think about dedicating their designers to use additive manufacturing and to rely more on service providers to discover how they can use additive manufacturing in their operations or products,” he said, adding later during the discussion: “Make sure that design departments are aware of additive manufacturing’s potential.” 

However, education is key. “By trying to push the technology everywhere, we create a situation where everyone starts to use a very complicated technology but may not be capable of managing it properly,” cautioned Vancraen.

Reichental added that “we need to shift our mindset as shapers and guides of this industry from selling boxes and capabilities to developing scalable solutions. And to do it in a way that doesn’t confuse the market.” 

He also urged the industry to take some of the “labor intensity away from the process and not expose so many people to the same problem again and again.” And he echoed Baveja’s earlier call for additive manufacturing companies to do the hard work of manufacturing. “It’s a grind but that’s how you do it; it takes time and dedication, and it requires standards and a common set of KPIs,” said Reichental. “So, we need to grow up.” 

Baveja said that “investments in awareness and education should be made collaboratively, because we are all trying to do the same thing. None of us have built highly profitable billion-dollar companies yet, so we have a long way to go and the only way to get there is together.” He suggested joint marketing as well as jointly published reports and jointly developed standards.

And for additive to be able to fit into the factory floor, “we need to be able play nice with traditional manufacturing with ERP systems, MES systems, and open APIs. We need to think like manufacturing solution providers,” Reichental said. “It goes beyond our industry. There’s also an opportunity to stop calling ourselves an industry, because we are just complementary and substitute tools to the rest of the digital manufacturing universe.”

Added Niemeyer: “Sometimes we look at additive manufacturing technology [in a way that’s] too isolated, but we need to think about the purpose it serves. We’re looking at other alternatives—like forging, casting, joining, machining, grinding. . . . We need to look at this technology for what it is—it is one tool in the toolbox so at the end of day manufacturing has a toolbox that consists of multiple tools.”

As Terem of Markforged said: “The customer doesn’t care about being a specialist in additive—they just want the right part, at the right time, at the right cost.”

Be Upfront About Sustainability

When Griffiths asked the panelists about the sustainability of additive, they described achievements but also admitted that there’s work to do here, too. 

“The fact that we can create shapes that optimize flows in fuel nozzles, turbine engines, rocket engines, and car engines and for the heavy industries has tremendous potential for the world,” Vancraen said. “I’m very positive about additive manufacturing.”

He did suggest the need for collaboration in listing the energy consumption of machines as well as focusing on the sustainability achievements of certain applications.

It’s also important to be upfront about the challenges.

“If you compare the carbon consumption of traditional injection molding per unit of material manufactured, it’s much more sustainable and energy efficient than additive manufacturing,” said Baveja. “It has sobered us to say that we have to work much harder on this. So, there are areas we have invested in.” These include carbon calculators for transparency, closed-loop solutions with take-back programs to regrind parts into powder, machine take-back programs for refurbishing, design-for-additive rules to save substantial energy, and materials standards, he shared.

Reichental added that “we need to be mindful of how we characterize additive manufacturing in terms of sustainability and not be tempted to take shortcuts to greenwash it.” 

Moving Additive Forward

The panelists encouraged the additive manufacturing industry to better collaborate to develop awareness, standards, and education to support users. And that means getting back to the grind, as Baveja said.

“We are doing great things—but let’s be honest about what we can do and what it really delivers and work harder to have it deliver more. I think the days of ‘additive is disruptive and can do amazing things’—I think we’re past that now—it’s now time for the hard work and get back to the basics of building a business, making a difference, scaling applications, one by one—humility,” said Baveja.

Reichental offered a great question for additive manufacturing technology providers to consider: “How do you make the lives of people managing digital factories easy and exciting so that they feel they can adopt with confidence?” 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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