Manufacturing Blog: No Need to Change Lanes Just Yet
It’s easy to oversteer in reaction to alarming news, but a well-thought-out additive manufacturing strategy remains worth following.
You can see and hear evidence of this slowdown in the news of layoffs to cut operating costs and mergers to satisfy investors through growth. This dynamic has led to questions about what the future holds for AM.
My suggestion is: Don’t fall prey to the latest messaging about AM. I’ve long believed that human beings generally make emotional decisions later justified by logic and facts. If you look hard enough, you can find evidence to support whatever decision you want to make. But emotional reactions—yours or others’—shouldn’t drive your AM plans. And don’t let the current state serve as the basis to justify taking your foot off the AM gas pedal, or worse, stomping on the brakes.
Stay diligent and reinforce the convictions to AM’s value to your operations.
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AM is different from—and fills needs not met (or not met well) through—traditional manufacturing processes. It is a complementary solution that has become established and, in my opinion, will continue to add value well into the future. However, without the exuberance to fuel the AM fires, making the case to use AM becomes more difficult. The days of doing something just because you can are over. Now, more than ever, you need to prove real value to your company.
Two doable, practical applications where real value can be delivered, with low risk, are no longer part of the conversation. They have become mundane and forgettable, but don’t overlook or dismiss them. Instead, renew your efforts to elevate your use of AM for these applications.
Prototyping has been a cornerstone for AM for many years. It isn’t exciting or newsworthy and won’t earn accolades and awards. Yet, it is fundamental to building great products while driving out costs and delays. Whatever your level of AM usage for prototyping, do more.
Tooling is another practical, low-risk application where you should be pushing AM’s use. For low-hanging fruit, look towards jigs, fixtures, gauges, and guides with a goal of placing more of them on the manufacturing floor. In many cases, AM can produce them faster and cheaper. That is an easy justification. But the big win is increasing manufacturing efficiency through shorter cycle times, less scrap and more consistency.
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AM for production is a different story. The past few years have seen countless predictions of AM becoming a mainstream tool for production at scale, even if it’s for the purpose of so-called mass customization. But production is far more complex and challenging to execute in AM. The risk is far greater, and the investment needed is much more significant. Add to that the unfulfilled prophecies of sweeping change across production lines in all industries, and you may have a non-starter.
For a time, there was pressure to rush into AM for production, driven by the premise that those who don’t act will succumb to the competition. Now that the hype has died down, the pressure has abated. Even so, while you may be wise to ease up on the AM gas pedal for production work, don’t abandon the idea. Instead, continue preparing for AM production so you are ready when the time is right. You now have breathing room. Use this time to learn, discover, and plan for your future with AM production.
The tailwinds fueled by hype have reversed. Headwinds now threaten to slow advances. It is important to be smart about AM plans, seeking to help your company counter the uncertainty from the current economic conditions.
Maybe ease up on the over-the-top AM accelerator, but don’t put on the brakes.
Todd Grimm is president of T. A. Grimm & Associates, an additive manufacturing consulting and communications company, and a 30-year industry veteran.