A Big Picture Perspective on Additive Manufacturing

IMTS 2016 proved to be a vast event with many exhibitors and visitors.

A couple of trips away from the office in recent weeks have served to reiterate to me the position of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry within a much broader context. It’s always a good thing when this happens I find, as it gives me a much wider perspective — both personally and in the way that I approach my work. Sometimes I am guilty of focusing too closely on the minutiae and forget to take a breath and look at the bigger picture within a much larger framework. Thus I am grateful when opportunities arise that allow me to take stock. And so even as 2016 heads towards its close, the bigger picture I speak of is worth considering from a couple of angles.

When I attended IMTS recently, I was wholly struck by the vast size of this trade show; four buildings at McCormick Place were filled, some on multiple levels, with swathes of companies (2,407 of them) offering every conceivable manufacturing product and service. It was immense! The Additive Manufacturing Pavilion was dwarfed by comparison, and did not cover even 1% of the floor space. It was by no means insignificant, and it drew considerable interest and visitor numbers, but it drew a poignant analogy. Moreover, even while appreciating where additive technology currently fits within the spectrum of manufacturing technology in terms of size and revenues ($5 billion versus multi-trillion) the considerable optimism for its current application and future potential is equally real.

The latest projections for growth, that I have seen, came from MarketsAndMarkets, which claims to be the world’s No. 2 firm in terms of annually published premium market research reports. It projects that the 3D printing market will reach $30.19 billion by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 28.5% between 2016 and 2022. Even if you apply a ‘give or take’ approach to these figures, or figures from similar reports, the 3DP and AM industry is going to be a vibrant place to operate.

Another angle from which to look at the big picture is uptake of additive technologies within manufacturing environments. Awareness is now high, similarly application of additive technology for early product development, but uptake by many established manufacturing companies, for more rugged manufacturing processes — whether for tooling, composite lay-ups or final production — is still hesitant to say the least and there is still much work to be done to convert awareness to profitable uptake.

While I was attending the TCT event last week, one lengthy conversation in particular brought this home to me. I was catching up with independent consultant Kevin Smith (previously with Voxeljet) who works with a range of clients on AM technology feasibility studies and implementation strategies. We were talking about the work that needs to be done outside of the affirmative community hubs that events like TCT create. So even while many of the vendors at TCT were reporting that the awareness and understanding of visitors was noticeably higher than last year, what about all those companies that have not engaged with AM, and those that have but still don’t ‘get’ it? 

As Kevin and I talked about the disruptive nature of additive tech he told me how it is still being resisted by a large number of companies — mostly companies that are so entrenched in traditional ways of working – such as foundries – that they can neither comprehend or believe the advantages that are presented to them. Even when the costs, based on real benchmark products, are set down right in front of their eyes. One project that Kevin cited was for a company where he could demonstrably prove vast savings in part cost, improved part quality and hundreds of thousands of pounds saved in shipping costs. The company still refused to proceed.

This is a problem. And as Kevin said: “Unless we change this perception, the disruption just won’t happen in production.”

He’s a man on a mission — a mission we all need to undertake! 

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.