Since you last did this we’ve seen technology launches from newcomers like Carbon, HP and 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?
Yes, this is the most exciting time that I can remember in terms of new 3D printing solutions. The sheer number of new announcements is amazing, but what excites me most is that we are seeing innovation – not incremental gains or me-too products – that opens the doors for new applications. On the list that you supplied, we have significant speed improvements, which increases the viable quantity or size of parts; we have new materials that expand the bread of functional prototyping and manufacturing; and we have new levels of part quality that chip away at some of the technology’s deficits. I am excited because we are seeing “better,” not just more.
Do you think we need to see more collaboration from hardware, software and materials manufacturers?
More collaboration is always welcome, but for the most part I do believe that these three elements are now working towards a common goal/vision. For most of 3D printing’s history, we have borrowed from the tools and materials that were developed for other processes. Now, with high hopes and great promise, we are seeing software and materials being developed and modified to support 3D printing applications. I think this will continue and grow, as long as the interest in the technology remains and the growth potential remains high.
You’ve been banging the drum for 3D printing of jigs/fixtures for a number of years and at AMUG’s Diamond Sponsor Panel most of the big players agreed that this was a low-hanging fruit, can you explain why?
I think the crux is that this is a low-risk, high-reward application. Some will recognise the opportunity through the experience of others and the balance will stumble on the application. Either way, companies can give it a try with little downside. Also, as I have said in the past, nearly every manufacturer has identified operations that need jigs/fixtures but they are not addressed due to cost, time and effort. 3D printing gives these companies a path of little resistance to deploy these tools where needed.
Do you think the mainstream hype of years gone by has helped open doors at boardroom level?
The hype opened doors, but now I am sensing and fearing a backlash. For a couple of years, the C-suite was likely to adopt an attitude that “everyone is doing it” so we must also. Now that perception has run into reality, the upper echelon is likely to be a bit reticent and demand a financial case for the investment. At worst, they may view 3D printing as an optional expense.
Yet, the hype did give 3D printing one thing that was desperately needed at the C-level, awareness. Prior to all of the attention, the technology was not well understood and its potential not taken to heart. Now we have the awareness needed and just need to make the business case for the investment.
What do you think is the rate-limiting step towards stopping companies using additive technologies for series production?
There isn’t a simple answer regarding limiting factors to adoption for series production. It is a web of factors that hold companies back. Therefore, addressing one or two factors will improve adoption but not resolve the challenges. However, increasing the breakeven quantities, both for time and cost, will have the most notable impact. With higher breakevens, 3D printing becomes a viable option for more products, which opens the door to a larger slice of existing manufacturing.
Is there a skills gap and do you think there’s enough being done to plug it?
There is definitely a skills gap at all levels. From design to operations and from technician to manager. 3D printing is different in nearly every way, which makes it a challenge when shifting from known processes to this new technology. And that difference means that new skills (and mindsets) are required. I am pleased with growth in 3D printing education and training, but much more needs to be done. We need ready access to this information for all that want to make use of the technology; this is something we do not have.