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

Busy CEOs may be forgiven for trying to tune out the noise and hype that technology suppliers try to generate. Remember the Y2K craze? But every once in a while, a technology reaches what Andy Grove, the first hire and ultimately chief executive of Intel, called the “strategic inflection point.” The technology’s cost falls dramatically and its performance rises equally dramatically. Grove was referring, of course, to semiconductors. But today, the same phrase applies to an entirely different field—Three-dimensional (3D) Manufacturing, also called Additive Manufacturing because parts and products are built one layer at a time by printers.

The evidence can be glimpsed at Pratt & Whitney, which has been developing 3D manufacturing techniques for 25 years. In a room at its headquarters in East Hartford, Connecticut, four big machines almost soundlessly print out 600 plastic parts a year—to be used as prototypes or for tooling and support for other metal parts. But now, the company says it is ready for the first time to place dozens of 3D-manufactured titanium and nickel parts on its PurePower geared turbofan jet engines. Engines with additively manufactured parts have been flight-tested and will power Airbus and Bombardier aircraft entering passenger service in the second half of 2015. The parts include fuel-bypass manifolds, mounts, fittings, brackets, oil nozzles and airfoils.

The strides that Pratt, a unit of United Technologies, and GE’s engine unit are making are attracting wide attention because jet engines are among the most precise and powerful machines in the world, and they are subject to incredible heat and stress.

“It’s like when IBM started in the personal computer business in the 1980s—the engine-makers have embraced the new technology and given it legitimacy,” says Howard Kuhn, a 3D expert and Distinguished Collaborator Award winner at America Makes, also known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, based in Youngstown, Ohio.

Aerospace isn’t the only sector demonstrating the power of 3D manufacturing. However, in other industries, small- to medium-sized businesses often lead the way. In the medical field, Oxford Performance Materials, a $10 million-a-year company, uses 3D manufacturing to make pieces of the human cranium out of a high-performance plastic and customizes them to fit the heads of patients who suffer head injuries. Likewise, in the dental field, Align Technology, a $660 million-a-year company, uses 3D manufacturing to offer customers largely invisible plastic spacers customized to each individual’s set of teeth. In other dental settings, patients can watch an implantable tooth be printed before their eyes.

In short, 3D manufacturing is breaking out of the prototype stage, where it has lingered for many years, to full-fledged manufacturing.

Wohlers Associates, a top consultancy in the field, says 34.7 percent of the global market for additive manufacturing is now devoted to making parts for final products, as opposed to prototyping, molding and various types of tooling. That’s up from just 4 percent in 2003. Using 3D to make production parts passed the $1 billion mark globally in 2013 and about 38 percent of that activity was in the U.S. “We are seeing companies push the limits of additive manufacturing to new levels and apply the technology in entirely new ways,” says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers, based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The reasons that 3D is suddenly catching on are many and varied. The costs of printing machines have dropped, and the machines are more automated and efficient. Also, scientists and engineers have made progress in understanding how various metals, plastics and composite materials can be made from powders and then bonded with lasers and other tools. Designers are recognizing that they can develop parts and not worry about whether the parts can be manufactured through traditional techniques, which is allowing them to craft parts that are dramatically different in appearance. Furthermore, companies are realizing they don’t need long manufacturing runs for specialized spare parts, as in military uses, because parts can be made on an as-needed basis. A 3D printer has even been sent to the International Space Station so that astronauts and scientists can print replacement parts rather than having them blasted up from earth.

This change has come about so fast that many CEOs of small- and medium-sized industrial companies now find themselves at a loss. “If you’re a CEO of a small or midsized company and you are not seriously investigating and investing in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, chances are you are placing your company in a significant, competitive disadvantage,” says Avi Reichental, chief executive of 3D Systems in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “You will be disrupted by other companies that compete with you because they will have these capabilities.”

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.”

Because 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.”

CEOs who get the formula right can transform their businesses or create entirely new ones. That’s what Align, based in San Jose, California, has done. It built its business on the back of 3D techniques, reaching the $660 million sales level in its most recent fiscal year. Its products, which it calls aligners, are pieces of clear plastic that a patient wears in the mouth to move teeth into better positions. Over time, as a patient’s teeth shift, he or she gets new aligners that continue the gradual shifting process, perhaps more than a dozen times.

The company uses technology similar to computer-aided design (CAD) to take pictures of a patient’s mouth, but then it uses an additive manufacturing technique called stereolithography to create molds that are exact replicas of the patient’s teeth. A piece of plastic is thermoformed over the mold, becoming the aligner, and the mold is then thrown away. But the company would not be able to get the accuracy it needs without the step involving 3D.

“Everything we make is different,” says Wright. “When you are making something different every time, additive manufacturing is now a technology that can do that.”

Because Align built its business on the basis of 3D technologies over the past 15 years, it did not have to overcome internal resistance. It’s an example of how small and mid-sized companies, which are not hemmed in by large capital investments that big companies make in plant and equipment, can move faster and disrupt their competitors.

“For a company like GE to make a change in its manufacturing methods, from the traditional to the 3D world, is a big investment, not only in technology but also in people and cultural change,” explains Wright. “But smaller companies saw the potential for the technology like we did and have converted it into a manufacturing platform.” That’s the ultimate payoff for going up the 3D learning curve.

How to Jump-Start Your 3D Efforts

TAKE A PERSONAL INTEREST in 3D technologies that might be relevant to your business. Tap consultants, go to trade shows, visit potential suppliers and in general, demonstrate to your organization that you’re serious. Learn enough to challenge other executives and get them out of their zones of comfort.

TO GET “BUY IN,” seek internal champions to help push 3D and give them time and resources to explore the new technologies.

IF INTERNAL CHAMPIONS are not available, consider consultants, university programs and government programs like America Works or the Ohio Third Frontier program to introduce new ideas into the company and convince internal constituencies that 3D can be transformative. This is called “open innovation.”

DON’T TAKE SUDDEN PLUNGES and buy big pieces of 3D equipment. Start by buying additively made parts and simple machines to speed your company’s learning curve.

BUILD UP THE SKILL SETS of your key employees, such as engineers and machine operators, by encouraging them to take courses at community colleges or other entities that offer 3D training.

For more information on the benefits of 3D Printing, join us on March 26, 2015 at 2pm Eastern for The New Economics of 3D Printing, a free webinar. Learn how 3D Printing can help your organization reduce production costs, improve product quality and increase speed to market. Please click here to register.
" William J. Holstein : William J. Holstein is a journalist, consultant and speaker. He is the author of, "The Next American Economy: Blueprint For A Sustainable Recovery." For more of his work, visit www.williamjholstein.com.."