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Additive Manufacturing: Too Much of a Good Thing

Todd Grimm
By Todd Grimm President, T.A. Grimm & Associates

The diversity of additive manufacturing (AM) alternatives has stifled progress on many fronts. While numerous options are cause for celebration, they also place AM squarely into the camp of ‘a good problem to have.’

Companies welcome the sheer number of technology options, the broad range of industries served and the breadth of applications. The endless possibilities lead to massive potential for engineering and manufacturing.

However, the breath within AM makes it analogous to all metalworking and plastic processing solutions combined. This sprawling technological landscape is what creates the problem. Resources are spread too thin; options are too numerous; and the growing body of knowledge is too large.

Understanding, optimizing, conquering and mastering a single AM process type is reasonable. Doing the same for the entirety of the AM landscape, in short order, is preposterous. It is preposterous for the research community to characterize cause and effect; for the development community to use that knowledge to take control; for users to adopt the ‘best’ technology; and for the operators to master processes in a production context.

The bottom line is that there is too much to discover, too much to learn and too much to do. The AM industry suffers from attention deficit disorder on a communal scale, which has impeded technological excellence and industry adoption.

There are many aspects to this ‘good problem to have,’ but the one that resonates the most is the quandary of technology selection. In 1970, Alvin Toffler coined the term ‘choice overload’ for the difficulty people have in making decisions when faced with many options. In 2004, Barry Schwartz continued this line of thinking with “The Paradox of Choice—Why More Is Less,” as have countless others.

With AM, the number of options can be overwhelming and confusing. How this plays out is dependent on personalities and business cultures. We can get stuck in a paralysis-by-analysis loop, opt to make no decisions or continuously chase the next best thing. Regardless of the reaction to the paradox of choice, the cumulative effect on AM is an impairment on the rate of adoption and implementation. Choice stymies growth.

The diversity problem will not be resolved in the near term; it will get worse. I believe that the AM industry will experience contraction around the best-in-class solutions. But I have given up on predicting when that will occur because there has been no slowdown in the introduction of new approaches, launches of new business and expansion of product lines.

In light of the "problem" of choice, what can AM users (and potential users) do to break free of the paradox? First, accept the situation and adapt to it. Second, establish a clear focus on the company’s needs, wants, and desires to establish clarity on what should be the focus. Third, make decisions and take action today rather than waiting for the next best thing. And fourth, collaborate with others to share the burden of information gathering and fact finding.

Past promises of disruption and revolution have not been realized on a large scale because AM is embroiled in numerous skirmishes on a multitude of fronts. The solution for progress is to divide and conquer.

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