Leslie Langnau – Managing Editor
On Twitter @DW_3Dprinting
Change is a constant with additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing. The next trend you’ll find is the growth of additive services. Part of this growth is driven by customer need, part by the frequent acquisitions made by the larger vendors.
Customer need turns out to be an interesting driver. SMS Research Advisors conducted a survey on AM. The majority of the 700 respondents are familiar with additive and it’s benefits: 79% know AM gives users access to more complex design capabilities, 79% know it reduces lead time for product development and 42% see AM improving manufacturing efficiency. But only 20% see AM improving product quality and enabling more integrated products. Still, knowledge and understanding about AM is fairly strong.
The respondent makeup was 47% engineer, 15% designer, 14% executive, 13% other and 9% project manager.
What was more interesting from this survey was the view about the choice between in-house versus outsourcing additive projects. About 73% of the respondents see service bureaus as giving them access to advanced equipment. 60% see less of an investment risk by using service bureaus (versus purchasing a machine). 53% said service bureaus are a way to produce parts that cannot be internally manufactured. And 47% said service bureaus offer access to additive expertise.
Selling AM machines to end users may no longer be the main goal of vendors in this industry. Instead, a trend may be developing where vendors offer AM production services for users.
Survey respondents noted several challenges with AM machines: 63% said current costs were an issue, while 58% felt that future costs won’t be as much of an issue. Post-processing and material availability were seen as challenges now and in the future, with the future coming in at 34% and 46% respectively.
Noted Joe Allison, CEO of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, such challenges indicate that the industry should change the conversation from one of emphasizing AM’s technical benefits to that of AM’s overall business value.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the fairly new Stratasys Direct Manufacturing company at its Austin plant. This company emerged from the acquisitions of Solid Concept, RedEye and Harvest Technologies. It is one of the largest service bureaus in the U.S. In the past 12 to 18 months, it has tripled its capacity to prototype and build customer parts, with much of that growth coming in metals.
Imagine a company with the following machines: 13 Polyjet, 42 stereolithography, 43 laser sintering, 97 extrusion, 14 direct metal laser sintering, 23 CNCs and 13 injection molding systems. Yeah, impressive. In addition to these technologies, the company also offers urethane casting, tooling and finishing services. Several of the laser-sintering machines are DTM versions before that company was bought by 3D Systems.
Stratasys Direct Manufacturing is additive technology agnostic. Most of the direct metal laser-sintering machines come from EOS. Metal additive projects are more likely to be outsourced to a service bureau than done in house. Many of the reasons have already been mentioned—access to advanced equipment, less risk and the ability to manufacture parts not possible internally.
The survey indicates that AM is moving to the next phase. First, it changed how prototypes were made. Now it’s changing how production parts are made.
The survey also indicates that many engineers and designers are optimistic about using AM. They generally believe it will play an important role in manufacturing in the future.