Grimm Behind the Scenes
It’s no secret that there is a flurry of activity surrounding 3D printing. Interests in the technology and industry are at an all-time high, and the concept of manufacturing with 3D printing is at the forefront of many conversations.
On the surface, it may appear that everyone is adopting 3D printing and that everyone is inching closer to producing their next product line additively. As observers, we are given the impression that the revolution is taking place. However, when you get a peek behind the scenes of companies other than your own, the reality is a bit different.
Over just the past two months, I’ve had the opportunity to understand what is going on behind the scenes at a diverse array of companies: users and prospective users, manufacturers and prospective manufacturers, startups and Fortune 1000s, and venture capital and investment firms. The conversations have been interesting, and the realities have been eye-opening.
While 3D printing is more active than ever, the behind-the-scenes tours have strengthened my conviction that we are on a 10–20 year evolutionary path, not a 5-year revolutionary upheaval. We are marching to the future through a series of small victories rather than a few major events.
What that means to you is that time is on your side. While you may have the perception that your company is falling behind, the truth is that you are most likely in the majority. You have time, but to remain competitive, you can’t sit idly and let all others pass you by.
Disconnect: Interest and Action
Within six days, I was seated amongst employees of two very large, well-known companies. The goal of both gatherings was to bring together people from across the varied business units so that they could collaborate in a way that advances 3D printing’s use. Meetings like this have been rare. Just by their occurrence, it shows management support for 3D printing initiatives.
All of the participants were eager; eager to learn more about and do more with 3D printing. However, eagerness and interest don’t necessarily translate to action.
In one of the meetings, when the 150 attendees were asked how many have ready access to 3D printing, just three people raised their hands. When asked what they used 3D printing for, the unanimous response was prototyping and design evaluation. Following that insightful conversation, the same group was asked if they own, personally or professionally, a consumer-class 3D printer; just one person raised his hand.
The other meeting was a bit different. Nearly every attendee had direct access to a 3D printer, and all had interesting tales of how the technology had benefitted them. Their stories were compelling and the business gains were real. It sounded like proof of a revolution in the making until the common grievance was voiced. It seems that even though 3D printing was producing results, many found it difficult to get funding to add more 3D printers.
Not surprisingly, both meetings liberally used GE (General Electric) as the pinnacle of 3D printing prowess. Attendees at both meetings cited GE for aspiration and motivation. GE has become the signature of success for 3D printing. Its tales of producing aircraft engines with 3D printing have inspired and motivated many. However, I’d be surprised if GE Aviation wasn’t the 3D printing exception within this massive corporation. My guess is that most other GE business units are more like the two companies I visited and much like your own. But keep in mind that I have not recently been behind the scenes at GE, so my comment is speculative.
From those two meetings and dozens of other conversations, I witnessed some commonality across companies of all sizes. Interest is high but activity is throttled. Production is a vision but prototyping is the primary application — with decent growth in jigs, fixtures and mock-ups. Financial justification is imperative but 3D printing often falls short when competing with other capital expenditures.
The other commonality is that questions abound, but answers are elusive. Taking a page from the reporter’s handbook, companies want to know who, what, when, where, why and how. Yet, these answers are tough to find and often nebulous. While companies can collaborate with others to get insight, which I highly recommend, the answers are still evolving. Individual companies are left to seek them out. At the highest level, “Why” is easy: better, faster and cheaper coupled with innovation. Yet, until “Why” is translated into financial gain, a business case cannot be made.
Sound like your company? It should because this is the norm as far as I can tell.
Attention has driven interest, but that is just the first step. It is an encouraging and welcomed step, but nonetheless, it is just the start. To get to action, companies must overcome the forces of business. It’s all about time and money. Where to spend your time? Where to invest financial resources? And what offers the biggest return?
Companies demand information on why, who, what, when, where and how. Without them, action is questionable. Those answers will come. 3DP makes sense. It is a powerful tool when applied to the right application. But it will take time for these answers to coalesce.
Yes, there are those companies, like GE, that have found or made their own answers, but they are in the minority. From my peek behind the scenes, that is my perception.
So, the moral of this story is that you are not alone. If you are struggling to move 3D printing forward, there are many, many like you. This means you have time. You are not lagging; you aren’t behind the masses. You don’t have to react to all of the attention. Instead, you have the luxury of time to act strategically.
You can’t afford to do nothing, though. You have to start taking action. My advice is to start prototyping now, and if you are already using 3D printing for that application, do it more. Learn from this experience, and use it to start building your plan for the future.