For many years, progress in additive manufacturing felt a bit like swimming against the tide. A small, albeit passionate, collection of individuals and companies shouldered the burden of moving the industry, technologies and applications forward. Passion kept them going, but there just were not enough resources to make a sizeable impact.
In recent years, the number of participants in additive manufacturing swelled, as did their diversity. Fuelled by the sensationalistic proclamations of revolution and disruption, there was a rush of new players. The tide had turned. Instead of swimming against it, the tide was propelling additive manufacturing.
However, that torrent was a bit shallow. Fuelled by wild-eyed enthusiasm and gut-level beliefs that additive manufacturing was the next big thing, the new entrants did not bring much staying power with them. Optimism ran high but substance did not.
That brief history brings us to today, an age in which I believe we have achieved critical mass. Measured not only by numbers, this critical mass is comprised of a diverse body of interests that span the entire gamut of tools, solutions and services that enable the business of additive manufacturing. Driven by realistic, business-minded and balanced initiatives, the critical mass brings with it substance and the financial and intellectual resources for advancement.
The tide continues to flow in the same direction, but its depth and breadth have increased, which makes it a force to be reckoned with. Critical mass offers substance, influence and the power to make lasting changes.
Increased depth has resulted from a shift in mindsets and motivations. The passion of the veterans has coalesced with the optimism of the rookies and been tempered with the wisdom of maturity. Startups and established organisations are devising practical and sensible solutions to real challenges. They are starting by gathering intelligence on the industry to discover unmet needs, not devising solutions in hopes of finding problems that may be addressed. Today, there is a sense of direction and purpose to the innovations and advancements, and that provides power.
The tide’s increased breadth stems from the range of innovations and advancements as well as the scope of users and applications. For the latter, all of the attention over the past few years has driven greater adoption of additive manufacturing. There is now a sense that additive manufacturing is a reality and that the time has come to make use of this tool. Having reached a state of critical mass, organisations feel compelled to adopt the technology for product development and production.
With increased use comes increased justification to devise new business ventures to capitalise on the growth opportunity. Although the additive manufacturing industry is still tiny, relative to many established markets, it has enough mass to draw the attention of huge corporations and budding entrepreneurs.
These organisations are tackling hardware, software and materials, which results in the technical advancements that fuel even greater user adoption. But what excites me most is that companies are addressing the unmet needs beyond the day-to-day operations in the additive manufacturing lab. New solutions have been, and will be, devised that address all aspects of the business of additive manufacturing.
I believe that we have reached critical mass because we are building an ecosystem of products and services that make additive manufacturing a “real” industry that moves it beyond a novelty to a practical and powerful resource. With critical mass, additive manufacturing has a strong foundation for growth and the propellant for accelerated advancement. The tide is rising, which according to the aphorism, will lift all boats.
Todd Grimm is a stalwart of the additive manufacturing industry having held positions across sales and marketing in some of the industry's biggest names. Todd is currently the AM Industry advisor with the Additive Manufacturing Users Group.