Last week I wrote a review of formnext but there was more to my formnext experience than that. The Additive Manufacturing (AM) industry was exhibiting itself and its growth and the numbers were impressive. But for me that isn’t really the whole story. As part of my job, I talk with many ecosystem players on a consistent basis and am happy to connect people when appropriate. While all the meetings we had prevented me from walking around to my heart’s content, I did talk with many people at formnext as well. What I came away with is an intensified sense that there are many layers to the AM ecosystem, most of them kept private. The top layer is the public one we see at formnext and elsewhere: booths, press releases, presentations. But there are wider, bigger, deeper layers beneath that are private, not publicly visible. There are hints to what’s going on there that are publicly visible and examples (beyond the usual suspects) or private activity becoming public. Are these layers necessary and are they good or bad for our ecosystem?
Timing is Everything
Public announcements are carefully crafted by companies. Some ecosystem companies time revealing news and exposing heretofore private layers with events such as formnext. Printer Manufacturers announce new models and technologies, materials companies exhibit new materials and applications (even if often both categories do not fully reveal what these technologies and materials are used for in actuality – that remains in a lower, hidden, layer – see part below labeled Automotive part A in Shining3D’s booth at formnext). Sometimes, when conditions allow it, an application comes to light and often makes a lot of noise. In the past, Carbon used Rapid in the US to reveal their involvement in the production of the soles of Adidas Futurecraft sneakers. That made a lot of noise and is a great consumer facing application (and speaking of timing, I would love a pair – when will they be available for everyone?). I’m speculating here that while Carbon show several use cases on their website there are quite a few more that are not there.
Sarah Goehrke wrote about timing in innovation and I think innovation is another manifestation of the private layers of AM – the best kind of innovation to my way of thinking (admittedly impacted by many years of investing in start ups) is innovation that arises from a need that is not yet in the public layer but will be. I think Goehrke put it best in her example: “Understanding the changing landscape of agile manufacturing, for example, leads to identifying the protection of intellectual property as a major challenge that will need to be addressed. Done in reaction to a major IP crisis, such a solution could easily appear as ‘too little, too late’ and undermine the integrity of any viable solution brought to market after the fact.” So timing is especially important in the private layers and knowing what’s happening there is crucial to time your innovation to market needs.
Keeping a Lid on it
Often journalists such as Goehrke and Rachel Park know a lot more than they can write about – it must be frustrating. Our team often is in this conundrum as well: we know things confidentially and would never break that confidence but we would really love to be able to share this knowledge. Park wrote an interesting piece about this in the context of the question: is the ecosystem growing in a way that justifies the hype. She mentions that in her talks with printer manufacturers they claimed over 80% of production applications were not visible. She adds “A large majority also agreed that it was highly frustrating, particularly for the industry as a whole.” Once in a while a nugget is revealed – Park mentioned our discussion of Michelin but another, in a completely different (and at the time surprising to me) industry, is the Chanel mascara wand. In March 2018 Chanel announced that it plans to mass manufacture its new Volume Révolution mascara wand with additively manufactured wand “head (below from BeautyDEA). Their announced target volume was 1 million wands a month. Definitely a move to the public layer but when did this start in the private layer? Chanel filed the patent for this wand in 2007 (!!). This was one of the longer very quiet applications of additive manufacturing and once this announcement was made they went quiet again. No word I could see on actual volumes or on roll out dates and availability. At the moment I see this mascara priced at $35 which our family’s make up connoisseur tells me is several times the price of “regular mascara” but not much more expensive than other Chanel mascara. I plan to surprise her with such a wand to test if I can find one in my next trip to the US. Because there was no follow up information, we’re back in the private layer on this one.
Still, sometimes we see hints in public for what’s going on in private. For example, companies using AM for production need to increase their AM capable workforce. Not to blow anyone’s cover but in my LinkedIn feed I see companies posting AM hiring posts even though there isn’t a shred of public information that they are doing anything in AM. I thought I would do a short search on LinkedIn published jobs. I found one job opening for a student project at Scania that centers on a particular part they are targeting for AM. The last time Scania made a peep about AM was a piece from their R&D lab in 2015. I guess they progressed from there… Another example I found in my 5 minute search is Johnson Electric who produce motion solutions for automotive and other industries. They are currently looking for someone who will “Contribute in the development of current additive manufacturing methods for High volume production.” The last piece of public news from them on AM I could find was in 2016. At formnext I couldn’t help but notice the job wall (below) with tens of open positions in the AM ecosystem – it was strategically positioned right next to the PitchNext stage.
OK, so there is public information and private information and the latter far outstrips the former. So what? The common wisdom is that the more information we have the faster we can advance and innovate. Proponents of open software and the share economy will probably point out that having all information public allows for the entire ecosystem to advance faster. One player can learn from another’s experience and mistakes. I believe this is true, initially, but it does not necessarily reward those organizations that put in the effort and funds to innovate and contribute to the shared knowledge pool – this leads to less investment in innovation in the future. In the corporate world, companies compete and want to maintain their strategic advantages without tipping off their competition so the private layers are very important to maintain. However, it’s possible that between non competing companies there can be an incentive to share. Securely, of course. There are ways to securely share your know how and IP without losing control of it, if you’re willing to. The ecosystem can move forward faster (though alas not at the top speed of everything public) and private information remains private yet still can be used by collaborators. In short, I’m optimistic that our industry can move faster while maintaining necessary privacy, IP, and strategic advantages. It’s mostly a matter of putting appropriate infrastructure in place. But that’s a whole other post.