Additive Manufacturing’s Future Still Looks Bright

Stephen DeAngelis

April 9, 2015

Although I haven’t written anything about additive manufacturing (aka 3-D printing) in about six months, pundits still believe that it, along with the Internet of Things (IoT), is ushering in a new industrial revolution. Samir Shah, CEO and co-founder of 4 AXYZ Inc., can be counted among the proponents of additive manufacturing. He believes that additive manufacturing is going to play a significant role in the commercial manufacturing sector. “Effectively, we need to separate delightful, hobby-level, in-home making from economy-empowering manufacturing,” he writes. [“3D Manufacturing: New Weapon For US Economy,” InformationWeek, 1 August 2014] He asserts, “Three things are desperately needed from today’s 3D technology.” They are:

  • Rapid progress toward superior quality finishing.
  • Width and depth of product range (a greater variety of materials prepared for automated processes).
  • Industrial-scale customization to achieve required volumes and speed of production.

Shah concludes, “3-D making is all set to blossom into manufacturing. 3-D manufacturing will bring the world to our doorstep.” As Shah notes, one of the challenges faced by companies wanting to use additive manufacturing is the speed of the process — historically 3-D printing has been slow. That may be changing. A Silicon Valley startup called Carbon3D Inc. has developed a 3-D printing technology that “enables objects to rise from a liquid media continuously rather than being built layer-by-layer as they have been for the past 25 years, representing a fundamentally new approach to 3-D printing. The technology … allows ready-to-use products to be made 25 to 100 times faster than other methods and creates previously unachievable geometries that open opportunities for innovation not only in health care and medicine, but also in other major industries such as automotive and aviation.” [“Researchers collaborate to develop revolutionary 3D printing technology,” R&D Magazine, 17 March 2015] The following video shows the system at work.

The new process was developed by Dr. Joseph M. DeSimone (), a professor of chemistry at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and of chemical engineering at North Carolina State, along with two colleagues, Alexander Ermoshkin (@AlexErmosh), chief technology officer at Carbon3D and Edward T. Samulski, also a professor of chemistry at UNC. DeSimone is currently serving as CEO of Carbon3D. The R&D article explains:

“The technology, called CLIP — for Continuous Liquid Interface Production — manipulates light and oxygen to fuse objects in liquid media, creating the first 3D printing process that uses tunable photochemistry instead of the layer-by-layer approach that has defined the technology for decades. It works by projecting beams of light through an oxygen-permeable window into a liquid resin. Working in tandem, light and oxygen control the solidification of the resin, creating commercially viable objects that can have feature sizes below 20 microns, or less than one-quarter of the width of a piece of paper.”

To learn more about why this new technology could be the breakthrough some manufacturers have been looking for, watch Dr. DeSimone’s recent TED talk. It will convince you that the future of additive manufacturing is indeed bright. DeSimone believes that liquid-based 3-D printers can be built that can manufacture objects up to a thousand times faster than past technologies. That’s game changing. He also notes that his process directly connects the design process to the manufacturing process. This kind of connectivity enhances the power of the Internet of Things. Mary E. Shacklett (), President of Transworld Data, writes, “Imagine a world where smart systems, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, and robotics combine to automate large areas of manufacturing, linking wired and wireless networks throughout the world in the making of products, and relying on both structured and unstructured big data to get the job done.” [“How IoT big data will transform manufacturing automation,” TechRepublic, 28 September 2014] She continues:

“The move to smart manufacturing systems will be transformational. Big data will be called upon to ‘run things,’ and not just to deliver analytics. … As big data and IoT remake factories into optimized and highly automated plants, goods will achieve greater speeds to market, with stepped up profits for companies since more goods can be routed to market faster. Progressive companies are already investing in IoT-driven systems, which they believe will enable faster responses to changes in consumer demand and product innovation. This potentially opens up greater market opportunities for companies and more options for consumers — which benefits everyone in the value chain.”

It takes little imagination to see how additive manufacturing fits neatly into the vision described by Shacklett. Travis Hessman (@TmHessmanIW) insists, “We’ve been looking at 3-D printing all wrong.” He believes that looking at the products that are being manufactured using additive manufacturing “misses the real point of the revolution.” Jon Cobb, Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Stratasys, told Hessman that the real revolution “happens when designers begin mastering the new 3-D tools — all of its shortcomings, advantages and novelties — and making new things as they’ve never been made before.” McKinsey & Company analysts Daniel Cohen, Matthew Sargeant, and Ken Somers write, “Today, 3-D printers can not only handle materials ranging from titanium to human cartilage but also produce fully functional components, including complex mechanisms, batteries, transistors, and LEDs.” [“3-D printing takes shape,” Insights & Publications, January 2014] They continue:

“The capabilities of 3-D printing hardware are evolving rapidly, too. They can build larger components and achieve greater precision and finer resolution at higher speeds and lower costs. Together, these advances have brought the technology to a tipping point — it appears ready to emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications. … The advantages of 3-D printing over other manufacturing technologies could lead to profound changes in the way many things are designed, developed, produced, and supported.”

They discuss five ways that 3-D printing is going to be disruptive for traditional manufacturing. First, it will promote accelerated product-development cycles. “Over time,” they write, “3-D printing will begin to affect how companies think about R&D more broadly, given how the technology enhances the ability to crowdsource ideas through remote cooperation.” Second, 3-D printing will generate new manufacturing strategies and footprints. “As costs continue to fall and the capabilities of 3-D printers increase,” they write, “the range of parts that can be economically manufactured using additive techniques will broaden dramatically.” Third, additive manufacturing will shift sources of profits for many manufacturers. They write, “The combination of mass customization and new design possibilities will up the ante for many companies and could prove very disruptive to traditional players in some segments.” Fourth, additive manufacturing will result in new capabilities. DeSimone’s TED talk certainly highlights the truth of this assertion. The final disruption that the McKinsey analysts insist will result from the growth of 3-D printing is the emergence of disruptive competitors. “Many benefits of 3-D printing could cut the cost of market entry for new players,” they write. “Initially, these new competitors will be niche players, operating where consumers are willing to pay a premium for a bespoke design, complex geometry, or rapid delivery. Over the longer term, however, they could transform industries in unexpected ways, moving the source of competitive advantage away from the ability to manufacture in high volumes at low cost and toward other areas of the value chain, such as design or even the ownership of customer networks.”

A few years ago additive manufacturing was looked upon as a novelty. Advances in the field have been so rapid, however, that few analysts would be willing today to dismiss it as a passing fad. Although additive manufacturing is used in many industries already, it remains in its infancy. I agree with DeSimone that it will be exciting to see what creative people can do with additive manufacturing as technologies mature.