Terry Wohlers has worked in additive manufacturing for 27 years, bringing a perspective to the field that only comes with experience. Terry’s view of the state of the 3DPrinting industry and where it’s going is honed from his depth of understanding of the technology, appreciation for the complexities at work, and strong relationships with companies and innovators utilizing 3D Printing. As last year, Terry’s talk at this past week’s Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York City cut through the hype and added a practical and realistic voice to the fray.
Terry’s market research firm, Wohlers Associates, each year compiles an industry report that includes data from around the world. This year he stated that 3D Printing will be the recipient of substantial investments globally. China plans to put 750 million yuan [$240 million US] into AM over next 6 years and are doing so by “buying their way in”. Singapore has earmarked $400M for advanced manufacturing programs that include 3D Printing.
Several countries are bringing the financial strength necessary for large-scale R&D projects to joint programs with large manufacturers for highly sophisticated AM tools. In South Africa, the government has partnered with Aerosud to build a massive 5kW laser system to 3D Print Titanium. Other big companies are putting R&D efforts into AM technology. These include DMG Mori Seiki who combine subtractive milling with 3D Printing, and Arburg who are working on using standard injection molded pellets, which would be a major cost reduction. In the USA, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is also working with machine tool maker Cincinnati on novel feedstock but also has developed a deposition rate that is 200x faster. These are the kinds of advances Terry feels 3D Printing needs to be viable on the production floor.
Obstacles and Challenges
Terry feels that the obstacles and challenges in 3D Printing are mostly design driven. We’ve all heard that the complex geometries possible with AM reduce weight and save fuel. But it is design software being utilized by companies like Airbus that bring these considerations to a new level. Topology optimization software analysis can create maximum strength to weight ratios for various parts of each plane.
Cost savings over subtractive manufacturing can be substantial as 80 – 90% of a part can be lost as scrap in machining processes, unlike AM. Further cost-savings are realized with parts consolidation that new software builds into the designs, reducing the time and expense of assembly. GE has consolidated as many as 20 traditional parts into 1 AM part and found that in addition to being more economical to build, the part was 20x more durable.
In Terry’s opinion, more and more effort is needed to not just take a traditional design and 3D Print it, but rather to re-think the entire part design to take into account the capabilities and limitations of AM. Companies like Netfabb for example, produces software to clean up designs to ensure a more successful chance at a good print.
Particular work is needed in the design and removal of supports and anchors, and since 3D Printing allows for complex geometries how do we inspect to see what’s inside? If powder is left inside, it may cause problems down the road especially in implantable medical devices.
“3D Printing in production pushes the limits of the technology”, says Terry. “We need quality and consistency, in short, process controls. Reliability is key when building production equipment. Part manufacturing will not grow as fast as we would like since the price of machines and materials is too high right now.”
Terry does feel that prices will come down with competitive pressures, as technical advances are made in AM technology and by educating the design community, especially in Design for 3D Printing over old Design for Manufacturing concepts.
What the Future Holds
Using the old Technology Adoption Lifecycle bar graph, Terry laid out where 3D Printing falls for Prototyping and Production users. Prototyping has been around for awhile and the users he suggests fall into the Early Majority which is basically right after Geoff Moore’s famous Chasm. However, for part manufacturing, users may lie between Innovators and Early Adopters or before the Chasm far from being ready for a mainstream market. Of course, Terry states, “Production is where the money is.”
In industries as diverse as photo booths, aerospace, bio-printing, medical devices, food, and jewelry Terry feels that 3D Printing is still not a mass production tool and I think most people in the industry would agree. Although he has no ability to predict when this will change, predictions are that by 2021, AM will be a $10.8 Billion industry. If total global manufacturing is a $10.5 Trillion industry and we conservatively predict that 3D Printing takes over 2% of that market, we still only talking about $210 Billion annually. So,Terry concludes, “we’ve only seen tip of the iceberg!”
In response to an audience question on HP’s strategy for 3D Printing, Terry said he would expect them to concentrate on professional grade machines and to couple that with service bureaus. His guess is as good as any, but that does make sense to me!
Graph from Crossing the Chasm by Geoff Moore.