Additive Manufacturing All Adds Up

Consider How Building a Metal Part from Inside out With Very Little Waste Compares to Turning a Solid Metal or Metal-Alloy Cube into That Same Part by Grinding it Into Waste Metal Shavings

By Joe Feeley

This month's feature, "The Shape of 3D Printing Changes" (p 49), focuses on the current state of additive manufacturing. It's our first article-sized discussion of this industry segment, and I'm sure it won't be our last.

We've watched this market for some years now, as it evolves from mostly commercial, consumer widget manufacturing and mold making to include increasingly more-sophisticated medical device and industrial products manufacturing capabilities.

We've noted that as it evolves further, its impact on today's machining centers, on molding machines of all sorts, and its capability to produce a standalone part that previously was assembled from a handful of sub-components will be profound and a bit scary to builders of those types of machines.

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Simply consider how building a metal part from inside out with very little waste compares to turning a solid metal or metal-alloy cube into that same part by grinding most of it into waste metal shavings.

Our interest here is in how it will play out as additive manufacturing finds its place on the big, noisy, hectic, high(er)-volume factory floor.

I've visited with these machine builders—mostly at trade events—and automation and controls aren't what they want to talk about. Most of the control system is in-house-designed, with third-tier, often COTS-level components, and the controlling software is proprietary and guarded intellectual property.

The builders are pretty much repelled by the idea of entering into a world of standards-based, open-architecture automation, where they fear that their unique secrets would lose their edge.

[pullquoteBut it seems that if this segment is to include a more mainstream, higher volume, cost-competitive environment—and I think it'll have to in order to keep its overheads in line—then it will have to alter its automation strategies.

That seems inevitable, since it's no different from the way that just about every machine building segment eventually realized that the homegrown automation that it knew so well and protected so diligently eventually couldn't keep up with the market demands placed on it.

]I expect we'll hear more about this from our automation supplier community, although for now, there hasn't been much chatter about an increasing role for them in this biz.
The Gartner Group says technology moves through "Hype Cycles," the five stages in its adoption before it firmly roots or dies a quiet death. The phases are Technology Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, Trough of Disillusionment, Slope of Enlightenment and Plateau of Productivity.

Maybe we're expecting too much, too soon, but technology can move through phases pretty fast. Anyway, we plan to watch and report about all of this. We'd love to hear what some of you builders, whose markets could be disrupted by an additive manufacturing alternative, think about this right now.