Skip to content

Looking Back to See What is Ahead for Industrial Additive Manufacturing

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

I am not a big proponent of speculative statements on what the future holds when they are crafted from conjecture. Instead, I believe in casting past developments forward, in the form of trends, to project what the future holds.

Additionally, I am not comfortable in building the future from trends that lack substance and endurance. Additive manufacturing (AM) is a long-haul venture, so the fleeting ‘fashion trends’ of the moment are not strong indicators of the direction the industry will take. I also limit my field of view to industrial applications. I feel that conversations about industries such as medical or construction are best left to those who know the drivers and challenges from firsthand experience.

With this in mind, I offer an outlook based on enduring trends of the recent past as they apply to the discrete and process manufacturing industries. It is my hope that I offer actionable information and insights for the companies that use, or will use, additive manufacturing.

Slow and Steady Advancement

Progress, on all fronts, has happened and will continue. Although it is more than 30 years old, this industry is far from being stable, mature or stagnant. It remains a work-in-progress, and there are many outlets performing this work.

With 2021 as an indicator, we should expect to experience a steady march forward to improve, resolve, overcome and augment the solutions or challenges that exist today. The near-term won’t be laden with jaw-dropping, mind-blowing breakthroughs. While some of the announcements may boggle the minds of casual observers, those who dig deep and pay attention will have seen them coming since it takes years, in most cases, to progress from concept to early-stage development and on to commercialization.

The minimal number of ground-breaking advancements should be celebrated and leveraged. It will be further evidence that additive manufacturing is approaching maturity. It is an indicator that the AM industry is working to satisfy user needs and requirements, which can occur at fundamental levels.

Multi-faceted Progress

The progress may be hard to recognize because it will be broad and multi-faceted. Without a cumulative view of all aspects of additive manufacturing, from hardware to software to materials and process, the inevitable onslaught of news may be interpreted as white-noise and marketing fluff.

But there will be significance to the diversity of advancements. This will be a case of the ‘whole being greater than the sum of its parts’ since advancement is dependent on the interactions between machines, materials and manpower, supported by digital algorithms.

Technological Diversity

Coming advancements will further expand the technological diversity of the additive manufacturing landscape. While a plethora of choice makes additive manufacturing an option for many industries and many applications, there are downsides.

For those who conduct research and development, diversity spreads the resource pool across a broad range of activities, often for the advancement of one solution that has no merit for all others. For the users of additive manufacturing, the number of options may lead to confusion, paralysis and fear. The result has been, and will be, a throttling of growth that leads to linear increase rather than exponential growth.

Partnerships and Collaborations

One method of addressing the diverse needs is to combine forces, and this has been an ongoing trend for several years. Rather than trying to create entire ecosystems single-handedly, companies are leveraging the competencies and specialties of others through partnerships and collaborations.

This, in my mind, is critical because there are so many aspects to making additive manufacturing work that it is unlikely that a single company can have the resources and talents in all areas and disciplines.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The additive manufacturing industry has been rife with mergers and acquisitions (M&A). This trend shows no signs of slowing down. There are many reasons to combine companies, but the one that resonates for me is the need to diversify. Companies have discovered that being a one-trick pony isn’t ideal. Customers need multiple technologies and multiple solutions to address their intended applications.

Another factor is industry fragmentation. With hundreds (maybe thousands) of providers pitching their wares, companies know that they need size (critical mass) to stay visible, relevant and viable.

Expansion then Contraction (Not Consolidation)

Contrary to others’ forecasts that industry consolidation is approaching, often supported by the M&A activity, I believe that in the near-term additive manufacturing will continue to expand. This will be followed by contraction—not consolidation—around a handful of key players.

The contraction will be by best-in-class for specific groupings of technology, industries, applications and price points. This prediction is pulled from the trajectory of the machine-tool industry. After a few hundred years, this industry has not consolidated. Instead, there are leaders in specific segments, such as process type (milling, drilling, turning), price points, and application or industry specialization. While the behemoths of additive manufacturing that offer multiple technologies may own a significant portion of the market, the diverse, multi-faceted nature of the additive manufacturing landscape provides ample opportunity for many companies to become industry leaders.

Production—Jogging to the Finish Line

In the past year, nearly everything written was from a series production angle, many with a reference to production ‘at-scale.’ And of course, supply-chain resilience and flexibility were common production themes.

Adoption of additive manufacturing for production and as a supply chain alternative will certainly continue over the coming years. However, my opinion is that production applications, generally speaking, will be out of reach for many companies and many products for years to come. The intent and initiative are welcome, but the context of being an at-scale production system may be a bit premature in the near term.

Yes, we will see more adoption in industries such as automotive and energy. And yes, these developments will be leveraged as evidence that ‘the future is now.’ But these companies will be in the minority, and their applications will be limited to isolated cases rather than across entire product lines and component types.

However, you cannot ignore additive manufacturing for production. At a minimum, you must start down the path to develop the experience, people, knowledge, processes and protocols required for sound execution. Becoming an overnight success is unrealistic; it can take several years.

As we march forward with progress on all fronts, production will become viable for more companies. And that is a future I think we all will welcome. But in the meantime, don’t lose sight of prototypes, tooling, bridge-to production and spares.

Better, Faster, Cheaper—Eventually

The high-level takeaways from this discourse are that patience and persistence are appropriate, and near-term investments of capital and resources are highly recommended. The future is coming, and additive manufacturing will undoubtedly play an ever-increasing role for those in the engineering and manufacturing realms.

Will additive manufacturing get better, faster and cheaper? Yes, but you will likely need to give it time to achieve the throughputs, output qualities or price points that satisfy your requirement. As the proverb says, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Pace yourself and allow additive manufacturing the time needed to mature into a solution for the masses that can tackle many of their applications.

While I have taken a subdued, perhaps somewhat pessimistic, view of what is coming for additive manufacturing, I remain encouraged, excited and enthusiastic. The future is quite promising, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.