As the TCT team has reported, RAPID 2016 was home to many interesting and exciting product announcements. HP provided the long-awaited launch of its Jet Fusion systems, Carbon demonstrated its M1 and announced three new materials, EnvisionTEC surprised attendees with its SLCOM 1 composites printer and XJet debuted NanoParticle Jetting for metal additive manufacturing. Many others joined these companies with introductions of hardware, software, material and service solutions.
Prior to these announcements being made and before the opening of the show floor, I offered a fast-paced presentation of what’s new in additive manufacturing (AM). In 45 minutes, over 80 items covering R&D efforts through product launches were summarised, and the list could have been much longer if time allowed.
All of these activities show that additive manufacturing (AM) is in a truly dynamic and fast-paced era of new solutions, some of them true innovations. The array of options is simply mind boggling and a bit overwhelming — at least according to those that drank from the firehose during my presentation. This was evident when one audience member, seeking to cut to the chase and distill the options into some semblance of clarity, asked what AM technology I would buy if given $1 million.
That question, at least as it was posed, has no answer. There is no simple, easy path to AM technology selection and no universal answer for all. Another audience member reinforced this position by noting that he had made a purchase based solely on price and envelope size. When his shiny, new system arrived, he discovered that much of what he intended to do was not possible. His is a story shared by countless others that did not do their homework.
The reason for the challenge in making a sound buying decision is that there isn’t a single solution that does all things well for all applications. That is compounded by the reality that there are very few technologies that are equal, or even somewhat comparable, in all operational and output characteristics. While tempting to make quick work of the selection process by ignoring these facts, that approach may lead to disappointing results.
The million-dollar question could only be answered after defining what success looks like for specific situations. Before sifting through all of the technology options — or naively writing a check for the latest and greatest — start by defining the desired applications and the products that will be additively manufactured, down to the component level. Next, determine what the requirements are for each combination of application and product. Finally, fold in the operational considerations like staffing, ease of use and running cost.
Odds are that the resulting requirements are beyond what any one technology can do. So now it is time to ask the tough questions to ferret out what is truly important for success in the applications that are most beneficial. It is after this work that it becomes appropriate to investigate all the options that this dynamic industry offers and match them to your needs.
That process covers performance specs, but it doesn’t fully answer the question of what to buy. Equally important is an evaluation of the reputations of the systems as well as the companies that offer them. A machine that looks good on paper but suffers from downtime issues or problems with some geometries won’t be ideal. For this reason, and the inevitable surprises with new systems, I recommend a wait-and-see approach for new products unless resources are available to work through any issues that arise. The offerings from HP, Carbon, EnvisionTEC and XJet are attractive and look quite promising, but I’d suggest waiting to hear the experiences of early users before adopting these new AM solutions.
The converse of the million-dollar question is what technologies are in danger of becoming obsolete? That question also has no answer. The answer will only become clear with time, use and experience. More than likely, this dynamic age will create more difficulty in selecting the best technology. Rather than displacing established solutions across the board, odds are that new AM offerings will expand your options, increase potential applications and create more technology overlap. AM selection will not become easier in the near term.
Without further insight, the only answer that I can offer to the million-dollar question is to buy two, three or four technologies. One technology won’t do everything so why not spread the investment across different AM solutions to increase the breadth of your applications.