Jonny Williamson discusses the benefits of ‘thinking additive’ with Philip Hudson, UK managing director of additive manufacturing pioneer, Materialise.
What do you think characterised 2016 in terms of UK industry’s adoption of additive manufacturing (AM)?
I’ve been in the additive world for at least 15 years and I’ve certainly seen a maturing of the processing (how you handle the data, manufacture the parts and finishing), and process (how you apply the design and handle integration).
Additive is moving much more into the arena of producing real parts for real use. Be they individual components or assemblies, things which do multiple things – one of the unique abilities of additive manufacturing.
Globally, announcements such as GE investing US$1.4bn to acquire Arcam and SLM Solutions Group – both additive manufacturing equipment suppliers, signify a significant evolution from merely prototyping to actual production.
Are manufacturers truly aware of the capabilities of AM?
There’s certainly a general awareness of additive because of it being covered in the mainstream press, featured on television programmes and in-depth articles in trade publications like The Manufacturer.
What we do find on occasion though is there isn’t awareness of the breadth of capabilities – it’s not only about cost reduction; it’s also about reduced time to market, supply chain optimisation, profitable small series, new product innovation, customisation. These things can all be achieved with additive manufacturing.
In terms of its actual deployment in industry, that’s relatively low. UK adoption is still quite a long way off from where it could be which, if addressed, could place the country far ahead of many other countries around the world, but we’re lacking impetus. If Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy green paper wants to achieve what it claims to set out to, there’s certainly a big role that additive can play, but that needs highlighting and championing. I don’t think the scale of the opportunity is well understood.
What are the primary barriers to awareness?
Awareness is absolutely the right word because it centres on engagement with the process. People may still mentally put additive in either the ‘prototyping’ or the ‘research’ drawer and therefore view it as something to plan in for the future. And yes, there has been lots of research and prototyping, but the bigger ambition is to get real parts doing real things. That’s what companies want and that’s what we want to help realise.
If the UK truly wants to get its head around additive manufacturing, companies need to look at it now. The technology can do some quite remarkable things today – it’s ready for the real world. So, manufacturers need to build up slowly, get some smaller projects on the go, enthuse people and grow from there.
Additive isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s certainly got some alternative answers to problems which have existed for a long time.
What examples can you give of the quick efficiency wins that a manufacturer, particularly an SME, can achieve by adopting additve manufacturing?
There are some great efficiencies to be realised in the product development process; small series production of parts becomes affordable – companies can go direct to manufacture without the need for tooling up. Continuous design upgrades with shorter product development cycles makes the process leaner, more flexible and cost effective; all key drivers in manufacturing.
Stock and spares inventories are another area where AM can offer efficiencies, reducing the need for large numbers of parts to be held in stock as the lead times for production with additive are shorter and not only that, but minimum order quantities can be reduced to 1 off.
We see these as hidden efficiencies that aren’t always considered; typically, a manufacturer will assess additive on a one for one part cost comparison. What they miss is the overall impact on the end-to-end supply chain cost efficiencies; reduced stock, reduced minimum order quantity, no tooling etc.
Efficiencies also come from the design benefits of parts which are additively manufactured. If something is made up of a component with three surrounding parts, could that be redesigned so four parts become one? Could an integrated channel be added to improve airflow enabling a component to be picked and placed faster? We’ve got tools now that are saving hours in production, so rather than a person having to be permanently stood on a line, they only have to visit it periodically over an eight-hour shift. That’s a real saving in terms of time and labour.
It’s tangible benefits such as these that we want to help businesses understand and realise. Additive can improve component performance, speed up a new product’s introduction onto the line, or even help a company be more innovative with its design to become more intricate and sophisticated. The list goes on.
How does the relationship between a manufacturer and Materialise manifest itself?
Typically, an organisation which already works with us on prototyping would express a desire to explore applications of additive further and then we would look at the pain points in the existing production method, for example. We also have instances where clients have come to us and said they’d like to explore designing ‘product X’ for additive because they’ve read about the benefits it offers.
From there it’s about identifying where the emphasis is needed; does the manufacturer want their business to adopt ‘additive thinking’ as a new mind-set and need a complete upskilling, development, and implementation solution or do they have a product in mind and need our support to design, engineer, and manufacture the parts. We build the solution based on the end-goal for the manufacturer.
You’ve mentioned ‘additive thinking’ as a mind-set businesses can adopt, what do you mean by this?
It’s about getting additive manufacturing on the agenda and approaching projects with AM as part of the toolkit. Manufacturers will have their traditional methods of manufacture and so naturally these will be the only ones considered when creating new products or improving existing parts.
What we encourage manufacturers to do is to explore the principles of additive so they become a natural consideration when assessing the production method for a part – it becomes part of the toolkit. It won’t always be the right solution, but if it isn’t even on the agenda then how will you find those parts where it does make sense?
You need somebody within those companies who has got additive on their mind that could either encourage the business to holistically review their current processes, or have been empowered to have a look themselves. A lot of where we work is creating internal ambassadors, people that ourselves and their company can invest time in.
A proof point project can be crucial. If you have that additive champion, someone who’s worked with us on a concept, that’s when they’ve got something tangible to go back to their management team and demonstrate a part that is, say, 60% lighter or cheaper, or has a significantly reduced lead time. Without that, it can be quite hard to receive approval and sign off.
It’s not just about finding those innovation-receptive companies, it’s also about making it safe for those who are used to doing things the way they always have done, and demonstrating that additive isn’t about completely revolutionising absolutely everything, it’s about applying it in the right place at the right time.
One of the big applications of addititve manufacturing is the production of jigs, fixtures and fittings, and yet it’s an area not many people are aware of.
Yes, I describe it as tools to support the process of manufacturing, something that will create or guide something. If you look at Materialise’s own medical division, we’ve produced a wide variety of guides to help make surgery easier for dentistry, knee and hip replacements, and so on. From a scan, we produce a template to help the surgeon accurately cut and drill in the right place. It’s additively manufactured, it’s not left in the patient, but it ensures the outcome is better; there are so many similar applications in an industrial environment.
We have made grippers, fixtures, nozzles that are rapidly delivering real, tangible benefits. One customer, for example, is realising savings of more than €85,000 with the introduction of just two additively manufactured components into their production environment. That’s an area where SMEs in particular could tap into additive, and gain some experience to help drive a longer-term exploration for end-use products. The design principles that you would learn around those jigs and fixture products then become part of your business toolkit.
Once additive is on the agenda and people are thinking with an additive mind-set about the benefits and finding potential applications, it becomes easier to apply that elsewhere in your business. Not to mention, you’re using it every day, it’s in your hands, you become familiar with it and others around you become interested. It really helps to take away that feeling of uncertainty and the unknown.
What advice do you have for someone interested in running an AM test case project?
There’s no need to go purely down the R&D route, because there are already quite a few additive processes and procedures that can be applied to start a company’s project. There’s no need to go off and reinvent the wheel. A lot of people in the business will want to see tangible benefits, and the quicker you can get to that stage the more momentum will be generated. Once you’ve had that quick win, then you can look at conducting more bespoke projects for your business.
Look for your pain points. Talk to your production team and look for high scrap or rejection rates, follow that back and see whether it’s down to a particular component not performing as it should, what parts of the production process are keeping your cycle time high, does the weight of something pose a health & safety risk, does it require two or more people to manoeuvre, what if something is made from one particular type of metal, could it be made from a lighter metal, does it even need to be made from metal? It’s this type of lateral thinking that will identify alternative methods.
When you find those individual pain points, think additive and seek the advice of a specialist. Of course, it doesn’t all have to be additive. Additive manufacturing may just be one tool in your toolkit, but if it’s not there, then you can’t benefit from it. It’s about having an open mind and embracing new technology, developments and techniques.