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3D Printing’s ‘Tipping Point’

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Additive manufacturing needs to improve its quality and consistency as it assumes a bigger role in manufacturing, advocates of the technology say.

“I think the industry is at a tipping point,” said Lonnie Love, an official of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (Oak Ridge, TN), who’s involved in 3D printing. “Reliability needs to improve significantly. It’s not uncommon to have one to two failures out of 10. Some systems are far better, some are far worse. We need to get to five to six sigma where failures are measured in defects per millions [rather] than tens to hundreds.”

More metals are available for use in additive manufacturing, where parts are printed layer by layer from a digital design.

Pathfinder, a 3D printed surgical tool, the result of a collaboration between DanaMed and Stratasys Direct Manufacturing

“In the last six to 12 months, there’s been a lot of new ideas coming into the public eye,” said Todd Grimm, president of T.A. Grimm & Associates. “We are in an age of innovation in 3D printing. The good news is you have a lot of choice. The bad is you have a lot of things to evaluate.”

As a result, he said, “With the rush of new technologies coming, it’s going to take years to get to prime time. It’s going to continue, for a reasonable number of years, being wild and wooly.”

A symbol of additive’s advance was General Electric Co. beginning to 3D-print fuel nozzle interiors at a facility in Auburn, AL. The company announced the project in July 2014. GE only said output would begin in 2015, without being more specific. As late as mid-2015, the company refused to elaborate about the timeframe. Finally, in December, GE said low-volume production was underway.

The fuel nozzle interior “is a great example of a big company making an economic case for products to be manufactured additively,” Love said. “They have a fantastic team and I’m confident that their success will be the biggest story in the industry.”

On the other hand, two of the big players in the additive industry lost a combined $2 billion last year. Stratasys Ltd. (Minneapolis and Rehovot, Israel) incurred a deficit of $1.4 billion while 3D Systems Corp. (Rock Hill, SC) lost $655.5 million.

Stratasys cut its workforce by 10% during 2015’s final three months. Both Stratasys and 3D Systems wrote down the value of assets, contributing to their losses. 3D Systems found itself without a CEO after Avi Reichental departed abruptly in October. The company said April 4 it hired former HP Inc. executive Vyomesh Joshi as its new permanent CEO.

“2015 was a year of transition for the 3D printing industry,” said Kent Firestone, senior vice president of operations at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, which produces parts for Stratasys customers. “The hype of 2014 wore off and many businesses started to shift focus to defining the business value of 3D printing and potential return on investment.”

While 3D printing expanded, “manufacturers were still cautious about making robust advancements in equipment and processes,” Firestone said.

Despite that, efforts to make 3D printing part of the future of manufacturing continue. In the auto industry, for example, “Everyone is playing around with scale models,” said Mark Stevens, consultant with the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI). “You can 3D print those models really fast.” Stevens also said 3D printing may be used in tooling.

“Right now the market is familiar with the benefits of 3D printing and its place in product development and prototyping,” said Firestone of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. “Many manufacturing applications have yet to be tapped. Most business leaders still view the technology as an engineering tool instead of a process that can benefit innovations and operations.”

Oak Ridge’s Love said that setbacks that have occurred “are normal and to be expected.”

“Most of it is related to the hype and excitement which I think, overall, is good for the industry. There is great promise with additive manufacturing but also many challenges. Low productivity [speed] and high cost are some of the harsh realities with additive. You can make a business case for low volume … but it’s hard to justify the cost and speed for a large number of industries today.”

Love added: “The good news is industry and governments … are making key investments to solve these problems. I’m confident that, in the very near future, a company will introduce the first Six-Sigma additive manufacturing system. They likely will be working with material suppliers and CAD developers. It will take a holistic approach to manufacturing.”

One booster of additive’s long-term prospects is Jack Beuth, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who in March participated in a briefing for the House Manufacturing Caucus.

“We have a strong focus on the direct metal processes—the machines which directly fabricate metal components by fusing powder or wire feedstock with a laser or electron beam. In this segment of additive manufacturing [AM] we have seen no let up in growth at all,” Beuth said.

“The machine [printer] manufacturers are having a hard time making machines fast enough to fill orders. The demand for machines is now coming from a wide range of metal component manufacturers, not just aerospace and medical implant industries.”

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