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Manufacturing Blog: Small but Mighty Enterprises Are the Force for AM Adoption

Manufacturing Blog: Small but Mighty Enterprises Are the Force for AM Adoption

It is time for SMEs to lead the way in the steady march towards making AM a part of standard operating procedures rather than niche solutions used in isolated instances.
Attention small- and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs): don’t fall into the false perception that large corporations are the primary force for advancing additive manufacturing (AM). In fact, it is the SMEs that need to push forward for increased adoption, expansion and advancement. This isn’t a trickle-down period where you follow the lead of the large corporations. Instead, it is a time to ‘percolate up’ from the small companies to the large.
The misperception is easy to explain and even easier to fall prey to. Those creating the news, the suppliers of AM solutions, and the media that reports the information tend to favor the stories with recognizable names. Their premise is that association with a ‘major brand’ will fuel readers’ desire to consume the story and accept it as fact. Essentially, the headline is assumed to have more impact if Boeing or Airbus are cited than if a breakthrough occurs at a tier-two supplier with no name recognition. The result is the appearance that large corporations lead the way, and all others follow.

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I know it is easy to fall prey to this misperception because I have done just that. I have been privy to many conversations on case studies, featured articles, and featured presenters where the emphasis is to get a big name, yet, I was lulled into the false reality.
Two recent events I attended re-opened my eyes. One was an on-stage panel discussion on supply chain, while the other was a webinar on persuading management to support AM. In both, panelists firmly stated that it is within the SMEs where the action is most likely to occur.
Believing that SMEs should follow the lead of large companies sets up a two-fold trap. One, it can lead to SMEs’ complacency, prompting them to wait and let it trickle down from above when the time is right. Two, it can lead to so-what mentalities, since the SME has little in common with the massive corporations. Neither is good for the AM industry because it is within the SMEs that progress is most likely to occur. And when the actions of thousands of SMEs are aggregated, the impact is far more significant than that from a single large corporation.

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So, what gives SMEs the advantage when it comes to AM? While they may lack the depth of financial and human resources, they have the advantages of being nimble, flexible and capable of making quick decisions. All of this stems from a more compact and localized organizational structure coupled with fewer stakeholders having disconnected performance measures.
Additionally, smaller product lines make the identification of good AM candidates simpler. Plucking out the gems is far more straightforward when the pool of potential candidates is reduced. In contrast, if a large corporation looks at tens of thousands of candidates, the first question that comes to mind may be, “Where do we even start?”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for SMEs is acquiring the insights, knowledge, and experience necessary to build solid plans and execute them well. Spanning design through quality assurance, there is a lot to digest and many steps to master. This is then compounded by the dynamic nature of the AM industry, where things seem to change weekly.

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Like a hive of bees, SMEs can counter information adversity by joining forces. There is still a lot to be done, a lot to learn, and a lot to master—all aspects requiring resources—but these do not need to be conquered individually. Instead, reach out to others for support to fill the gaps. Look for support and guidance from other SMEs, consortiums, educational institutions, or large clients.
SMEs are the foundation for progress for the bigger companies they support and supply. You may discover that the way the large company breaks its status quo vs. AM stalemate is to do an end-run by making its suppliers successful with AM. Essentially, by helping the SMEs, they are helping themselves.

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I write these words as a call to action. It is (and has been) time for SMEs to lead the way in the steady march towards making AM a part of standard operating procedures rather than niche solutions used in isolated instances. While it is unlikely that the SME will garner headlines for its achievements, it will reap the rewards of sound AM execution and establish its position as a progressive supplier that leverages technology. The SME garners these rewards while playing a role in paving the way forward for AM.
Todd Grimm is president of T.A. Grimm & Associates, an additive manufacturing consulting and communications company, and a 30-year industry veteran.

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