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Without context, fact can become fiction and prediction can become fantasy. Lacking a frame of reference that context provides, messages can become distorted and misleading. That is why placing statements in context makes for insightful conversations that yield higher quality information.
This is not a rant against the intentional delivery of information out of context. Instead, it is an observation that many additive manufacturing conversations lack the context needed to truly inform, educate, inspire and motivate. It is also a reminder that it is our responsibility to uncover the context when it is not offered.
For example, claims that additive manufacturing (AM) will lead to disruption and revolution can be both true and false. The validity of the statement depends on the context provided by clarification in terms of what industries, applications, conditions and timeframes.
Attendees of the AMUG Conference witnessed this duality. In an on-stage interview of Scott Crump, Stratasys’ co-founder and chief innovation officer, he made the statement that AM is already a disruptive force that is revolutionising processes. Meanwhile, in a panel discussion, two of Stratasys’ vice presidents agreed that AM will not lead to disruption and revolution. Without context, it appears that these three gentlemen do not share a common vision.
However, add the context, which each shared, and both statements make sense. Crump framed his statement in the applications of product development and manufacturing engineering with a dose of manufacturing in aerospace. Like Scott, the VPs cited examples where there has been big impact, but they framed the response in the context of all products and all components for all industries. As each conversation progressed, more details, considerations and conditions were added. Ultimately, all were saying the same thing; they were just coming from different reference points.
Another example from the AMUG Conference came during a panel discussion where 10 of the leading AM companies shared their insights. When asked what percentage of today’s AM use is for manufacturing, the responses varied from 5% to 50%. These percentages were based on their customers’ actual usage. From the responses, there is no way to conclude if we are in an age where AM has been widely adopted for production work.
Add some context and the data makes more sense. Those offering metal AM solutions reported higher use for manufacturing. Those working with plastics reported lower values, and those working with photopolymers stated the lowest values. Ah, now things are making sense.
But to truly understand how much production work is being done, more context is needed. For example, is the usage percentage based on run time, parts produced or part numbers? Fifty percent of all part numbers in the bills of materials would be outstanding. Fifty percent of all AM parts built would be impressive. Fifty percent of all run time, if dedicated to making just a few big parts, would be uninspiring.
Context is the key to information clarity, especially when deciphering claims of better, faster or cheaper. At the moment there is a race to be the fastest. Companies are claiming 10x, 25x, 50x and 100x. Without context, these claims are meaningless. To understand if that speed has any value, you must determine several things: compared to what, for what size parts, for what kind of geometry and for what materials. With this insight, the speed comparison now has meaning.
Since there is a tendency to omit the context when discussing the AM industry, applications and technology, it is up to each of us to dig a little deeper. Simply asking the right questions can provide the context that brings clarity. When presented with a claim, belief, comparison or fact, just act like a reporter and ask who, what, when, where, why and how. When the tables turn and you are the presenter, make it easier on your audience by offering them both the content and the context.