3D Is No Longer the “Next Big Thing”: It’s Here

Of course, Reichental has good reason to be a 3D evangelist. His company, which expects $650 million in sales in 2014, is one of the largest suppliers of additive parts and machines, along with such players as Stratasys and ExOne. His arguments that SMEs should take steps to get into the 3D game are compelling. He points out that SME companies that lack the resources and scale of the aerospace giants can catch up rapidly.

“The good news for smaller companies is that they don’t have to start where Pratt & Whitney started,” says Reichental. “Smaller companies can instantly stand on the shoulders of the Pratts that have been refining the knowledge for a quarter of a century. That should be their starting point. In the age of ubiquitous information and connectivity, nobody has to start from scratch.”

How can SME CEOs shortcut the learning process? The first step, experts agree, is for a leader to show personal interest in additive manufacturing by attending trade shows, visiting potential vendors, seeking out university or government programs—like America Makes—and tapping the expertise of consultants who may educate him or her. The process has to start at the top because the executives in any company who manage the manufacturing process are inherently conservative. They understand existing processes and existing equipment, and they know how to make all of it perform to acceptable levels of quality. However, they generally do not want to rock the boat.

Reichental says a CEO should identify an internal champion within the company to lead the push toward 3D manufacturing. One set of possible internal allies are designers, who understand that 3D manufacturing will allow them to innovate parts in dramatically new ways. They no longer have to worry that a part is not “manufacturable” with traditional casting or forging techniques. With
3D, they can design sleeker parts and products that can be dramatically more effective, often at the same or lower cost.

But Scott Defelice, CEO of Oxford Performance Materials, based in South Windsor, Connecticut, says that finding an internal champion may be difficult. The people in charge of manufacturing will not want to devote the time and energy to study a new, disruptive technology, he warns. “The guys who are making the plant run are probably not going to be your internal innovators. But if the CEO just takes the word of his internal guys and they don’t go down the [3D] path and five years down the road they find themselves losing market share, that’s a substantial strategic mess.”

Ultimately, most experts seem to agree, a CEO will need to introduce outsiders, such as consultants, suppliers, university experts and other players, into a company’s 3D deliberations. The fancy term for that is “open innovation.” “We would advise the CEOs of SMEs to look outside their own four walls for experts and solutions to help them achieve their goals in the 3D printing market,” says Paul Musille, an associate program manager at NineSigma, a Cleveland-based innovation advisor. “This can accelerate the R&D process and speed the time to market.”

Once a CEO gets the company solidly focused on 3D, it’s not sensible to make any wild leaps. “It’s just like anything that’s new,” says consultant Wohlers. “It requires some tender, loving care. If you don’t give it the attention it deserves, you can buy the wrong equipment or go down the wrong path.”

3D-3Because there are so many different types of industries and so many different 3D techniques, there is no one sacred path for a CEO to take. Therefore, it makes sense to set targets for the company and to embrace experimentation. The experts suggest buying some parts from a 3D supplier and buying a few inexpensive 3D printers to start developing a knowledge base. Getting the right set of skills on board is another key factor—and may require some strategic hiring and firing.

“CEOs have to find the right people to take the technology and leverage it,” says Emory Wright, vice president of operations at Align Technology. “They need to make sure that [they] fit very well together.”