Since TCT Show 2015 we’ve seen technology launches from newcomers like Carbon, HP, XJet as well as seeing launches from established players like 3D Systems, Stratasys and EnvisionTEC, is this the most exciting time you can remember for hardware innovation?
Recalling that I have been in manufacturing technology for my whole career, and in AM for 12 of those years, I perhaps have a longer view of hardware innovation than most. I would say that the early periods, when basic AM processes were being invented, were very fertile times for innovation. In some ways, more radical approaches were being attempted – some succeeded while many failed. I do not see the current period fundamentally as innovative as the “first days of AM”. I do see this period as remarkably rich in what I would call “adaptive innovation” – taking the basic processes that are now proven and adapting them to specific markets and applications.
After some years of divergence do you think hardware, software and materials are all on a similar path now? Or do you think the companies involved in those factors still need to collaborate more?
If we are to achieve the full potential of AM, we cannot have a manufacturing system full of local optimisation but with global sub-optimisation. We need to focus on the entire system to insure that the entire system is optimised. It took a long time for the world of machine tools to become synchronised enough so the part design, machines, tools, software, automation and inspection technologies worked seamlessly together. We have begun that journey in AM. The entry of experienced manufacturing technology companies into the AM market place can only accelerate that integration.
Is there an application of additive manufacturing technology that particularly excites you?
There are so many places where I can see AM as part of a transformational force for the industrial economy. On one hand, the optimisation that we seek in industrial production is partially dependent on the ability to increase business velocity, while decreasing total resource consumption. Nearly all sectors can benefit from that combination – especially those with long lead times and complicated parts. On another hand, we are only at the beginning stages of “design for AM”. When we are able to truly grasp the transformational power that exists in freeform design, we will see adaptation really leap ahead.
Do you think the mainstream hype of years gone by has helped open doors at boardroom level?
I think that the answer is likely a yes. People who sit in the “C-suites” and those on Boards have an immense breadth of responsibility. It is hard, in those roles, to be able to do the deep dive necessary to discern what are true game-changers and what are just fads. The hype of a few years ago probably raised the visibility of AM to a point that it pushed through and onto the radar screens of those that lead companies. So, on balance, the early hype probably helped to accelerate the adoption curve.
What do you think is the rate-limiting step towards stopping companies using additive technologies for series production?
Well, I have often said that manufacturing companies have many key metrics – productivity, quality, on-time delivery, cost, safety, etc. It would surprise me to see any of those companies having an equally weighted measure called – “how much 3D printing are we doing?”. The point is that AM needs to directly impact the other key measures in a company. The limiters, then, remain materials, cost and reliability. The progress on all three fronts is steady and significant. Referring back to the design question – when we have innovative designs that can ONLY be made with 3D printing, then comparisons to the metrics of traditional processes will become moot. Then, we will have a one-way door through which we cannot return.
Do you think there’s a skills gap and do you think there’s enough being done to plug it?
The question of a skills gap is a preponderant question for all of manufacturing. Many industries are seeing their talent pool diminish, with many jobs now unfilled. In some ways, I think that the transition to digitally based manufacturing aids in this skills shortage. Digitally based manufacturing, because the call for innovation and creativity, may again attract the best and brightest minds.