Profitable additive manufacturing is no oxymoron
While we have all become accustomed to working virtually on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms during the pandemic, we have lost the opportunity of the spontaneous conversations that take place before and after meetings, in hallways, or around. the coffee maker in the office or in a conference. Fortunately, a failed Zoom seminar left three of us alone on a Zoom call – and luck struck.
Using the power of Zoom, I was able to travel the world (virtually) and visit a different country each week as part of the “Additive Around the World” seminar series I launched at Penn State this spring. It has been great to “teleport” to different countries without the jet lag and air travel, but it is still difficult to have an informal conversation with a seminar speaker while dozens of other people are listening.
When it was time to travel ‘downstairs’ to visit Alex Kingsbury (@AdditiveAlex on Twitter), the additive manufacturing (AM) industry scholar at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia, we have ended up recording his seminar and then holding an “office hour” for questions and answers due to the two-hour time difference.
In order to make AM profitable, focus on the details and constantly scan the horizon – much like trying to find kangaroos in the background of a Zoom meeting. Image Credit: Alex Kingsbury
As we tried to spot the kangaroos on the hill behind Kingsbury while she was drinking her coffee, we realized that none of the students in the course had shown up for questions and answers. Looking back, why would they do it? They rarely attended office hours in real life. Why did I expect virtual office hours to be different? I mean, how often do you meet someone who has helped additively make a titanium chest implant for a cancer patient? I thought that would surely attract some students to the questions and answers.
Luckily, Kingsbury’s good friend SJ Jones (@Inconelle on Twitter) joined in to support her, and we ended up chatting on Zoom for almost an hour. We talked about everything from the changing landscape of medical device regulation in Australia to the exorbitant rate of argon consumption in some powder bed laser fusion systems to the latest #AMWTF build failure I shared. from my AM lab at Penn State.
After we got tired of trying to fight each other with our worst build failure, someone jokingly asked: How the hell does anyone make money with AM ? Eventually, the three of us started to wonder if the phrase “profitable AM” was an oxymoron. It sounds funny at first, but it led to the serious question of how someone makes money with AM. A build failure in a laser powder bed fusion system can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.
By sharing her story on the chest implant, I learned that often the costs can simply be passed directly on to the patient for custom implants, for example, depending on how medical devices are classified in Australia. However, as the regulatory landscape evolves, billing and billing rates also evolve, and thresholds are established for reimbursable costs. It puts a cap on what things can cost if an AM device is to make a profit, but companies like Stryker have figured it out. It has one of the largest installed bases of laser powder bed fusion systems in Cork, Ireland, where it additively manufactures titanium hip implants by the tens of thousands each year. Meanwhile, Invisalign manufactures hundreds of thousands of custom dental aligners every day with 3D printing technology; it can be done.
Interestingly, the AM service bureaus are also figuring this out; just take the recent acquisition of Morf3D by Nikon as an example. In fact, my first meeting with Ivan Madera was rather accidental as we both found ourselves sitting on a bench in a mall after his 3D printing presentation at a conference. We discussed the challenges he faced in getting the Fire Marshal to approve the storage of pyrophoric material in the new start-up he was launching, and now, six years later, he and his team have shown that FA can be profitable.
As the joke died down, our conversation turned serious. “Successful AM companies are those who focus not on the profit made by construction, but on how AM adds value to the overall product bottom line in terms of efficiency gains, new material combinations , advanced thermal designs and more, ”said Jones. Of course, if you follow her Twitter feed, you’ll sympathize with her daily struggles, many of which she attributes to the lack of Design for AM (DfAM) knowledge in the industry.
For Kingsbury, who coincidentally began his AM journey by modeling the costs of an electron beam powder bed fusion system, it was about prototyping versus manufacturing. “AM can be profitable, but it tends not to work as well in the area of one-offs, especially when designed by people less familiar with the idiosyncrasies of DfAM,” Kingsbury explained. I couldn’t agree more. She summed up the situation by noting that AF can be profitable when it grows. “The development phase is flattened, construction failure points have been addressed and most importantly everything from layout to post-processing can be optimized,” Kingsbury added.
To be profitable, AM cannot be a “one and done”. It is not enough to choose a part and manufacture it additively. All the knowledge gained should be transferred to the next design, the next build, the next material you use – not the airdrop when it doesn’t work right the first time around. Of course, smart companies do that, and they find ways to keep chance alive. Good thing, because you never know which conversations will ultimately make AM profitable.