Additive Manufacturing Ecosystem – How is it Doing? Review and Overview of #AMneeds


Lee-Bath Nelson  

FN 2019 DM part detail

For over 2 years now, we have been highlighting the needs in the additive manufacturing (AM) ecosystem in our series #AMneeds. How has the AM ecosystem advanced and what needs still remain open? What new needs have been unveiled more recently? In this post we review the needs of the past and how acute they still remain but also hint at some future needs – some were the subject of recent #AMneeds posts and some will be expanded on in future entries in this series. For a complete list of these posts search #AMneeds in the LEO Lane blog and to get future posts subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Passing the Baton

For many years, the AM ecosystem has addressed important ongoing needs: reducing the cost of 3D printing, expanding the selection of AM ready materials, improving skills and training, and addressing design needs. However, as more and more industrial applications came forward, additional needs have come to the fore. One example is the need LEO Lane addresses: secured repeatability, consistency across time and location, and intellectual property protection. Aside from repeatability, which is pervasive, industrial use of AM creates many other needs: automation, post processing control, and workflow solutions. However, these needs raise a common need that stems from how fragmented this ecosystem is: the need for integration and playing well with others which is becoming a key emerging need. Without seamless, easy integration, automation will be clunky and potentially impossible, workflows will be chopped up and manual, and the mind share and attention of highly skilled expesive personnel will be needed next to each and every 3D printer. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that this process needs to be automated, able to run remotely, and the least disruptive to normal company operations as possible. Integration is essential for that. Moreover, easy integration (including easy-to-use APIs) has to be addressed by all ecosystem players, there is no magic glue that can integrate everything with everything (yet?). The complexity of the total AM process, the 3D printing itself, and achieving a repeatable manufacturing technology necessitate seamless integration and knowledge sharing in the end-to-end process. This need is still evoloving and we look forward to new developments here. Recently several 3D printer manufacturers have indicated they are working on releasing their APIs to partners to enable just such integrations – an important step in the right direction. Stay tuned for an entire #AMneeds post dedicated to integrations.

Zac Posen 3D printed parts being assembled

Going Digital – Beyond Manufacturing

Another key need that came to be top of mind recently is looking at manufacturing within the end to end supply chain. Supply chain failures have hampered supply and affected costs drastically during the pandemic. The advantages of digital supply chains are clear once we consider these failures and how a much simpler, more nimble, and modular digital supply chain with virtual inventory can enable companies to react quickly to demand fluctuations and any failures that come up. So long as the digital supply chain and inventory is properly monitored and secured, there are only advantages to this approach. It seems that companies are turning their attention to this direction, and of course AM is an important enabler of digital supply chains. However, going digital also shines a light on another need: the need to calculate costs correctly. Traditionally, manufacturers use the same supply chain (once the part is produced) regardless of manufacturing technology. This makes cost comparisons easier – you only consider manufacturing costs as supply chain costs are the same. However, if an AM part allows a company to use a cheaper and more effective digital supply chain rather than a traditional, costly, supply chain then it is incorrect to compare manufacturing costs alone! We must compare the end to end cost until the customer has the part in their hand – this includes the supply chain costs. In addition, there may be other cost savings enabled by AM. As many consultants like Additive Minds or Accenture have said in the past, this calculation is more complex but has to be made. A calculator for this task is hard to put together but if it reflects the true cost it would answer a strong need.

additive manufacturing improving balls from MTC

Best of Breed

When a secured virtual inventory is used, the customer can potentially receive the latest and greatest part at any time in any place. Providing a best-of-breed part is in the interest of every company but not every company has all the knowledge needed for this in house. What can you do? Find an expert! If experts are willing to share their expertise, the company will achieve the best part possible and the ecosystem as a whole will advance faster. Sounds ideal but there is a fly in the ointment: the expert has spent years gaining her expertise and it would not make sense to just share everything without any economic benefit. We will address the need for best-of-breed in a future #AMneeds post – it is crucial for the advancement of the AM ecosystem and for strong AM adoption as a manufacturing technology.

Connecting the Dots

Along the same lines, often companies will hire consultants or work with platforms or marketplaces that can help them put together everything they need for the move to AM. Ivaldi Group, for example does just that for ships and cruise-lines and they are also part of a consortium, led by DNV-GL, looking for oil and gas solutions. Marketplace initiatives popped up like mushrooms after the rain about 3 years ago but they also disappeared quickly thereafter. It’s very possible that these days are more hospitable for specialized platforms and even marketplaces. Another way of connecting the dots was adopted by 2 Israeli start ups – Printsyst and Castor – both have found technological solutions that enable some of the first steps in moving to AM: checking which parts are 3D printable and then choosing which parts to start with. Choosing the right parts to start with is important for the success of any AM adoption because success breeds success. Although we wrote about this need 2 years ago, so much has changed that it may be worth revisiting this #AMneed.

AirShield_Teague_3D printed post covid19

Stay Tuned

A trend that seems to intensify is that companies from outside the AM ecosystem are entering it. Xerox came from 3D printing, material companies like BASF and Henkel didn’t just offer AM materials but also offer other AM related services, Arburg have translated their injection molding expertise to create a proprietary 3D pritning technology, and on and on. These new entrants bring a lot of fertilizing expertise to the ecosystem but, as HP can attest, they also need to come up to speed on this ecosystem’s specific needs and how it might differ from the ecosystems they are used to. Again, playing nice with other companies is key for this to work. I’m excited to see where we go and how collectively the ecosystem evolves and transforms and addresses current and future #AMneeds.

This would be a good time to let us know #AMneeds you see or would like us to write about. Tell us about them in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. (Pictures: feature picture is from FormNext 2019 taken by me, followed by Zac Posen’s 3D printed parts integrated into a gala dress, improved AM spheres from MTC, and something addressing our need to travel: Teague‘s retrofit to a plane’s cabin to create an air shield from COVID19).

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