Before a truly disruptive manufacturing technology can be successfully integrated into a company’s operations, a CEO needs to build a comprehensive equation regarding if and when to launch it. This equation measures the technology’s new complexities, capital and startup costs, when and how many benefits are first realized, and the risks of a disrupted rollout.
One of the most important elements of the equation of a very new manufacturing method is the ability to ensure efficient high-quality controls and yields. One disruptive technology where this is particularly relevant is 3D metal printing, also known as metal additive manufacturing.
In November 2017, according to GE Reports, former GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt noted that the company believed the long-term market potential for additive manufacturing was about $75 billion. Immelt went on to announce plans to build a business with $1 billion of revenue in additive equipment and service by 2020, up from $300 million today. Further confirming GE’s commitment to this goal, the company reported that it plans to build 100,000 jet engine fuel nozzles with 3D printing by 2020. However—although many of GE’s peer companies in aerospace are visibly active in 3D metal printing research and assessment—only Airbus has joined GE in having made a substantial launch to serial production of 3D metal parts.
Although GE is not alone in asserting that 3D metal printing is a transformative technology of the near future, many CEOs of less-aggressive high-technology enterprises are still exercising restraint, continuing research into 3D metal printing but at the same time patiently charting the path and potential of this technology to become a cost-effective, reliable, high-quality equation for large-scale production.
The relatively slow speed to market of these companies into 3D metal manufacturing is a logical and predictable response to the complexity of introducing a new technology that requires systemic change in each of the before-during-and-after manufacturing processes, including the need for unique new means of quality control.
Curious to learn more about the role of quality control in the minds of some who are holding back on implementing 3D metal printing into their processes, I devised set of questions for senior executives in different large high-technology enterprises. Their responses below, some of which are individual and some composites, do reflect an awareness of quality control in implementing this disruptive 3D technology.
Asked if they thought 3D metal printing was fully proven, nearly half of these top executives said yes, one reporting that his company was experimenting with small lot manufacturing, another reporting that the technology was proven to work even while also shown to have some bugs that had to be worked out. One CEO frankly asserted that the technology was not yet fully proven. Others acknowledged that the technology was useful but was not ready for serial production, or said it was proven, even as concerns remained that it required a completely new environment and methods in order to scale. Indeed, the consensus among all the executives was that 3D metal printing will scale but has not yet done so.
Asked about problems that have been encountered in production settings, one thought-provoking response came from the leader of a company that was deep into manufacturing. After noting that a 3D-manufactured metal part is a large, multi-layer weld sculpted by a computer-controlled laser, he noted that his R&D team was investing heavily in understanding how to assure the uniform quality of these parts, which are composed of several thousand layers formed weld-to-weld. He went on to note that the industry is seeking an in-process monitoring tool that could assure the quality of metal parts in real-time, largely by preventing manufacturing error, and in some cases correcting deviances that may arise.
This, he noted, would allow his company to dispense with expensive post-process equipment, including CT scanners. By improving the percentage of usable 3D manufactured parts and dispensing with the currently high post-process inspection costs, he reported that his company expected the economics of the technology to reach its potential. Finally, one CEO thoughtfully predicted that a fully mature 3D metal manufacturing shop would have to encompass executing quality control with minimal human oversight.
The overall message is clear: the quality control and yield elements of the equations being devised to assess committing 3D metal manufacturing to large serial production must be strengthened before some senior executives will say, “Go.” In short, the same considerations about quality control that hold for any disruptive technology in any sector also apply to 3D metal manufacturing today.