Hindsight 2020 – for Additive Manufacturing

2020-12-16

Lee-Bath Nelson  

Hoet 3D printed metal glasses feature dim 2020

When people say hindsight is 20/20, they definitely are not alluding to the year 2020! Looking back, in January 2020 3Dprintingindustry.com asked 80 experts to predict trends for 2020. Many talked about end parts, industrial applications, metal continuing its strong growth, a focus on materials and software, and sustainability. But, of course, almost none of these predictions came true in the way these experts intended. One quote from this piece was unknowingly tempting fate. It was Terry Wohlers that said: “We will not see dramatic change in one year.” At the time, I bristled a little as there were so many things in the pipeline, especially where software was concerned. Now, it is clear that 2020 brought much more dramatic changes than anyone could have predicted – all around and specifically in the Additive Manufacturing (AM) ecosystem. Of course, the impact wasn’t uniform with some industries much harder hit than others where and still others where the pandemic accelerated processes that otherwise would have taken much longer (Zoom, anyone?) – a long term win.

2020 Top View

2020 started like most years – lots of trend predictions and new year resolutions. There was some rumbling about a mysterious virus in Wuhan China but it seemed to be limited to that area. Or was it? In February Italy was already hard hit and from there things deteriorated. By the end of 1Q20, many businesses ground to a halt and whole countries were in lock down – the first of two, on average. The ripple effects were felt in many manufacturing disciplines, including AM. Metal AM was especially affected and many service providers found themselves with idle machines – by 2Q20 research reports were issued taking COVID19 into account. Specifically, some reports zeroed in on the hit metal AM was expected to take in 2020. On the polymer side, often the growing need for supplies added unforeseen demand to replace at least some of the halted production. However, people and firms are robust and adapt and by now working with COVID19 in the background has become a (hopefully temporary) new norm. Maximilian Munsch, Managing Partner and co-founder of consulting firm AMPOWER, recently told me that European service providers they are speaking with, especially in metal, are finishing 4Q20 at or close to full capacity. “There is a bounce back in demand but not to the extent that it would cover the 2Q20 shortfall” Dr. Munsch says. There is a pervasive sense that overall AM got a positive push from the pandemic but Munsch warns that this is not a uniform effect. “It depends on the customers’ industry”, he adds, “industries such as aviation were hit in a way that will require a long time to recover.” These highly industrial sectors use a relatively large amount of metal 3D printing.

View from Titlis Switzerland - photo Lee-Bath Nelson

Software, Cloud, and APIs

I recently listened to the analyst call of Stratasys announcing its acquisition of Origin (I believe this is a very important step for Stratasys since it is combined with a clear emphasis on end part applications and a software-first strategy – and this time they put their money where their mouth is, I hope soon their website will follow). First and foremost everyone on the call emphasized software – but that is a trend that already started in 2019 and is now being embraced by absolutely everyone. Origin’s CEO, Chris Prucha, credits Origin’s proprietary, multi layer software platform with enabling their technological achievements. Origin sees injection molding, not other 3D printing technologies, as its competition and claims to offer a way to produce parts that “Exceed injection molded strength, consistency, and durability at a competitive cost.” On the call both Yoav Zeif, Stratasys’ CEO, and Prucha highlighted the cloud software and connectivity capabilities being acquired – these are exactly the capabilities that the pandemic shone a spotlight on, and the lessons were not lost.

To be able to operate machines as smoothly as possible during the pandemic means the ability to control and monitor them remotely while ensuring consistency and repeatability, all this through cloud software. This naturally prompts companies to expand their software offering. Materialise, for example, recently announced new store front, CRM, and ERP software coming out soon as part of their strategy to emphasize and expand the company’s software portfolio. These solutions will likely allow service providers to enable remote operation of much of the order intake and customer and resource management portions of the process.

Many large 3D printer companies such as GE, HP and to some extent EOS as well as smaller companies like Origin, BCN and Ultimaker have realized the potential of software, and especially cloud software, to enable industrial applications. Software is the key to consistent, automated, and secured processes and repeatable results. The vast majority of notable 3D printer manufacturers have, by now, offered APIs that let partners interact with their software. As a partner of most of these companies, we at LEO Lane appreciate that greatly! With proper APIs we can easily offer IP Protection and consistency enforcement throughout the AM process and all the way to the 3D printer. That’s one trend from the experts’ list that was certainly accelerated in 2020. The remaining non-API offering 3D printers will need to hustle to keep up.

Carbon-and-Resolution-Medical-Manufacturing-Process-of-3D-Printed-Test-Swabs emergency

PPE, Ventilators, Swabs, and Other Paraphernalia

The Stratasys-Origin call left me with another take away: even Stratasys joined the bandwagon and now emphasizes end parts and serial production over prototyping. Stratasys is the last of the large companies to embrace this approach, for a long time it was firmly entrenched in prototyping – not surprising given that it owns some of the best prototyping 3D printers. But this call was all about production and Origin brings some much needed production expertise to the table. Prucha claimed on the call that Origin were the only machine manufacturer that produced swabs in house, not at an external service provider. This allowed the Origin team to get first hand experience with serial production, day in day out, and even some measure of certification. I’m sure this is highly valuable experience for them (and anyone, really). Aside from “the usual”, 2020 was certainly a year in which the AM ecosystem pitched in when the going got tough. From swabs to personal protective equipment (PPE) to ventilator parts, to ear savers and other paraphernalia – 3D printers were front and center. When supply chains failed, sometimes in a painful cascade, AM stepped up and offered an often ad hoc, stop gap, supply. In a few cases, the CAD files were not available (the fear is that once that genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back in) so parts had to be reverse engineered and additively manufactured to save lives.

Prepare to Fail

Wise strategists are now considering the expected “new normal” where supply chain failures are not a once in a blue moon occurrence but rather an expected, recurring, problem that companies must prepare for. In some of the cases where AM is too expensive when compared with injection molding or other traditional manufacturing techniques, AM is actually more affordable in times of supply chain failure or emergency. What’s the catch? You need to prepare in ordinary times to be able to switch over to AM when failure occurs. In addition, in some cases, when the math is done right and includes supply chain and set up costs, AM turns out to be more affordable in ordinary times as well. Some Fortune 1000 companies are doing just that – preparing the ground work for AM production both in ordinary times and in emergencies. There are many ways to do this: in house, in an outsourced managed process, or turn key with one of the turn key suppliers that are popping up like mushrooms after the rain (more on this in our upcoming 2021 trends post). Regardless of the method, companies who are strategically embracing AM as a secure alternative will be poised to better serve their customers in emergencies (and mitigate their own revenue risk) – a win-win situation.

For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Photos: Hoet 3D printed frame, view from the top with clouds (photo: Lee-Bath Nelson), swabs produced on Carbon 3D printers.

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