Get the most
The Pareto principle (AKA the 80/20 rule) is a little bit generous when it comes to the additive manufacturing industry.
About eight years ago, a good friend of mine — who has since left the industry — shared his field experience and his concerns with what he observed. He vented his frustration with what he saw day in and day out: Operators that knew little more than the basics; operators that just use defaults to get acceptable parts out the door.
His take was that only 10 percent of all users build parts with more than the basic, default build styles.
Eight years has not changed anything. From conversations with applications engineers and product managers, I’ve learned that this still holds true. Someone needs parts, so files are prepped with stock styles and built with whatever material is in the machine at the moment.
This MO (modus operandi) produces passable parts but leaves so much of additive manufacturing’s value untouched. It also leads people to believe that this is the best that can be done, which can result in less demand.
Ninety-percenters limit the applications, reduce the value, diminish the return on investment (ROI) and impede progress or innovation. While additive manufacturing holds claim to design freedom, endless possibilities and product innovation, defaulting to basic operations throttles all three.
I know, you are already pressed for time. But I encourage you to realize the full potential of your machines by committing to applying what time you can find to getting more out them.
Stop or Read On
If you can answer the following question, read no further. You are in at least the twenty-fifth percentile.
“Why do you do what you do?” In other words, what is the rationale behind your build styles and material choice? “Because that is the way we always have done it,” is not an acceptable answer.
If you must read on, don’t feel bad. You are in the majority. You are like most others when it comes to additive manufacturing as well as traditional manufacturing processes and everyday software applications. For example, a status quo operation is one of the barriers to direct digital manufacturing (DDM). When someone assumes that an injection moulded part needs the same material properties, same batch size and same annual production volume, DDM doesn’t stand a chance.
If no one questions why, nothing changes.
Now, if you are ready to get more out of that AM machine, you will have to put more into it, especially if you have future DDM plans.
Mingling with Users
My attendance at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) conference has confirmed the reports from application engineers. At this gathering, topics and conversations were focused on how to do things right with an explanation of why.
The attendees at this event fell into one of two camps. Either they were advanced users (ten-percenters) willing to share what they know, or they were part of the majority but with a desire to go beyond run-of-the-mill system operation. They are hungry to learn more; to do more.
Throughout the conference, I heard exclamations such as “I didn’t know I can do that” or “I didn’t know that material existed.” This is evidence that there is so much more to learn.
Your Return on Invested Time
What drives those people? Why do they invest time and energy to learn better ways to build parts? It is simple; they know that advanced knowledge and advanced operations will help them to be better, faster and cheaper.
Stock build styles and general-purpose materials do a fair job of balancing these three goals. But they will not produce exceptional results by any measure. Knowing more about the machines and materials, and putting that knowledge to use, allows you to tune the qualities of the part — strength, accuracy, finish and feature detail — minimize the total process time and reduce material consumption.
While there is a sense of pride in this achievement, the return on your time investment will be measured by an increase in demand for AM parts and a broadening of the applications for which it can be used. This, in turn, increases the ROI for the additive manufacturing system. That may be the greatest reward.
While you and all your associates know the value of having the technology in-house, others are probably question the expense of owning and operating it. Unless you work for a small company or have an inexpensive system, I can almost guarantee that someone in management is question why you don’t outsource the work.
Without clear value, that question can result in a loss of your beloved technology. So, knowing more and doing more increases the value of in-house additive manufacturing, which further justifies its existence.
More and better parts with more applications makes AM a must-have.
The threshold for becoming a ten-percenter is actually quite low. You don’t need to be superior. You just need to do more than the basics. While the threshold is low, it may not be easy to surmount.
If you want to join the ten-percent club, first commit to finding or making the time to expand beyond the status quo. Then rally some management support to send you to vendor-supplied training. If you’ve never had a class, start with the introductory training. You may know most of what they teach, but you will pick up techniques that you’ve never used. Once that’s complete, rally support to send you to an advanced course.
When back in the office, commit to spending a little extra time reviewing parts with an eye on the application to find a better way. Also, commit to using what you learned in class every day. Without practice, the education will be forgotten.
Before or after the classroom education, find others with your technology and start trading experiences, tips and tricks. You can do this through your personal network or through an event like TCT Live or the AMUG conference.
The last commitment is to experimentation. Try knew settings and options when you have a bit of capacity (your time and the machine’s) to try something new when a failure can be treated as a learning experience.
I know you don’t have free time for all of this commitment. In your day-to-day activities, you have to set priorities. Amongst all the parts to build, fires to put out and meetings to attend, I hope that you place a high priority on expanding your additive manufacturing skills. That can be the difference between having a simple modeling tool or a powerful production machine.