Automation is king: Why software is 3D printing’s next frontier

In Customization by trinckle team

In the next interview in our ‘Custom Talks’ series we talk to Professor Thierry Rayna. One of customization’s most eminent thinkers, Rayna sheds light on how the perception of products needs to shift and how crucial software will be in the further growth of the AM market.

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The impact of additive manufacturing (AM) on everything from design to supply chains is manifold. Often businesses face challenges that require new approaches. We talked to Thierry Rayna professor of Innovation Management at the École Polytechnique in Paris about these changes and what businesses will have to do to adapt to them. Read on for more about the future of AM across industries, the benefits and challenges of customization, and the changing nature of products themselves.

1. Could you identify some industries that will be dramatically impacted by the development of additive manufacturing (AM)?

In some senses, it is quite difficult to pin down which industries will be most strongly impacted by additive manufacturing. Above all else, industries that are able to identify a purpose, a meaningful reason for using AM will change. A good example of such an industry is med tech.

AM will also be important for industries in which fast production is a must. Whenever a company needs a part within a day then AM just makes the most sense. Industries where complexity is key will also see many opportunities to use AM, so that would be industries like aerospace or automotive. In these cases, AM is a way of achieving a better strength to weight ratio. However, it is important to understand that these are not huge markets and they certainly aren’t mainstream.

Another industry that will be changed by AM is construction. I think houses and other structures will gradually be built using AM, not necessarily because then anyone can be the architect of their home, but rather so that these buildings are tailored to their environment. I think additive technology will play a significant role in sustainable development, but this is at least 10 years down the line.

2. In your opinion, what kind of products and industries will benefit most from the customization that additive manufacturing makes possible?

Obviously, in any case where you need or have serious added value as a result of customization. Several industries immediately come to mind: medicine, jewelry, or sporting goods to name a few.

Ultimately, there are cases where each of us could benefit from having a custom product, but there are a few important factors that determine our willingness to pay for these products. One factor is cost. What does it cost me to have a custom product? Another, and arguably more critical, factor is the effort custom products demand from customers. Will they have to design things on their own, how long will this take, etc. In order for customization to become mainstream companies will need to find ways to automate it. Like the hearing aid market or Nike’s platform for custom sneakers, the customer is not left to handle everything by themselves. How industries and companies address these issues will determine which custom products are possible and successful.

3. What challenges do companies face in the adoption of additive manufacturing technology? What are possible solutions or strategies to address these challenges?

I briefly mentioned this in the first question, but it is also applicable here. A significant challenge that companies will face is identifying a purpose for using AM. Until the purpose is clear the applications of AM will remain limited in scope.

Beyond purpose, additive manufacturing, in combination with other complementary technologies, has fundamentally changed what products are, which will prove challenging for companies in a number of ways.  Products that are manufactured with 3D printing (or AM) are far more easily reproducible. Once the product is on the market, virtually anyone can copy it. The manufacture of instruments, more specifically electric guitars, offers a great example. First, think about a guitar maker, who builds acoustic guitars. All of the knowledge and expertise that required to make the guitar remains within the builder, even after the instrument is finished. But now imagine an additively manufactured electric guitar. Once the instrument is finished all of the information about how the guitar was made resides within the product itself. All it takes is a 3D scanner and this guitar can be copied.

Another very interesting challenge created by AM is a shift from products being solely ‘products’ to becoming platforms themselves. This may sound very abstract, but it is already happening thanks to platforms like Thingiverse. Users are able to upload and download 3D models of product add-ons for things like cars. People create iPad holders, seatbelt locks, even VW brake components. What this means is that the manufacturer no longer has total control of their product or its evolution, and this can have serious consequences for a company’s brand. Just imagine that the brakes of VW cars start failing and causing serious accidents. The consequences will be borne by VW, if not legally, at least in terms of image. Thanks to AM we are starting to see autonomous co-creation, and this force businesses to change.

Essentially, we are looking at a new class of product, which demands different skills from brand, product, and community managers. Companies cannot just see themselves as manufacturers of [x] product, but need to understand themselves as the keystone of a complex ecosystem.

4. What are the next trends you expect to see in the 3D printing market in 2017? In the next 3 years?

I don’t expect to see significant changes in such a short time. In the next few years what we will continue to see are incremental innovations in various technologies. These small advances make more and more niches possible, but will not trigger a mainstream breakthrough.

Actually, we are still waiting for major technological advances that will lead to that breakthrough. I think it is comparable to the adoption of personal computers. In the 70s and early 80s there was enormous hype around the PC, the technology was getting better, faster, and then the market ground to a halt and crashed. For a while, it looked like the PC was a fad that would never take off. But, then complementary technologies sprung up (e.g. paper printers, digital cameras, the Internet) and the purpose of having a PC at home became much clearer. I think AM is waiting for such a kind of combination of technologies to really become mainstream. Until AM is combined with things like AR and VR, IoT, and big data, I don’t think it will break out of its niche status.

5. What developments in hardware or software do you think are necessary in order to make 3D printing possible for serial production?

Software is where the AM industry is lagging the most at the moment, and this is absolutely hindering its adoption. For many users, AM is an unfamiliar technology that they cannot easily ‘access’. In order to find more purposes for AM and ultimately more business opportunities, there need to be easy to use human interfaces that expand the user base.

It’s comparable to the early days of the internet. If you wanted to publish something on the internet, you needed to know HTML, FTP, JavaScript, etc. Right now, we have the same problem with 3D models; most people can’t easily create or manipulate 3D objects, because they don’t know how to use CAD software. What we need is software combined with other technologies like AR that enable anyone to create and manipulate 3D objects and unleash the true potential of AM.

6. How will AM affect supply chains and what effects might this have on industries?

AM is not likely to change significantly established players, but it is a bearer of greater competition, because it creates opportunities for new competitors to enter the market more easily, with new kinds of business model.

For example, if you wanted to start a business producing some kind of widget you would first need to borrow money, do a lot of development, and eventually you would end up with your prototype. Next you would have to contract a manufacturer and order huge quantities to get a good price. Then you (hopefully) sell these products based on a demand you estimated. You end up with a negative cash flow model. Cumbersome and expensive.

But, with 3D printing you can completely reverse this. You create a product design, which you can upload on your website or on a 3D printing platform. When someone buys your product, you first get the money and then you produce it (and only in the ordered quantity), which means you end up with a positive cash flow model. There is no stock needed, you cut down on logistics, and it is far more efficient.

In this respect, AM is changing the nature of competition. For instance, Local Motors and Divergent aren’t trying to be automotive manufacturers. There is no way they could ever compete with the established players. Instead, they created a new business model and position themselves as platforms, letting others manufacture the product.

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