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What Keeps Additive Manufacturing Stuck In The Present?

Fri, 11/19/2010 - 6:30am
Dr. Ron L. Hollis, P.E., President & CEO, Quickparts.com

By Dr. Ron L. Hollis, P.E., President & CEO, Quickparts.com Ron Hollis

Additive manufacturing is the powerful approach of manufacturing by producing successive layers of the desired object, better known as rapid prototyping (RP).

Additive manufacturing has been around for a couple of decades and released the power of creativity and innovation to drive better product development.

The first several years were focused on the ability to efficiently make real parts, or prototypes, of their electronic or virtual form. This ability to go from the virtual world, or CAD, to the real world in a matter of hours is amazingly useful for all involved in the product development process.

So, if one assumes that the industry has not evolved as fast as its potential provides, then there are some great theories to address. Of course a newcomer into the industry would not have the baggage of lost years and would only see the joy and opportunity of the future. Regardless, it is an interesting industry to assess both in potential of the past and opportunity in the future.

Since I have been in the industry from the near beginning (’92) and became passionate about evangelizing the power of the process, it has been a fascinating ride. While most of the pioneers were quite impatient with the evolution of their “gold rush,” the reality is that the industry has done a fine job of evolving and is just beginning to reach the big curve up on the “hockey stick.” However, there are a few things that could have juiced the industry faster.

One of the major inhibitors was a clear lack of an industry leader. The early industry pioneer was clearly 3D Systems (TDSC), as the inventors of the initial technology and the first to commercialize RP systems.

However, they lost their way very quickly when they couldn’t figure out who was friend or foe in the industry. As it turned out, the emerging service bureau market was their friend (free evangelizing), but 3D Systems struggled to acknowledge this and treated most as their foe. Then lack of clear leadership continued as other technology pioneers made their way to success or death.

After about 10 years, Stratasys (SSYS) was awakened with confidence and capability and really began shifting the market adoption of the technology by building systems that could be used easily, and they invested in developing the 3D printer market.

They have recently been recognized for their efforts with the huge distribution agreement with HP. As a historical aside, it was BPM, Inc. of Greenville, SC, that fathered the concept of having a machine in your office that could produce parts. BPM stood for Ballistic Particle Modeling and was a very fragile technology that spawned the birth of a market but failed to reap the benefits.

Another challenge for the industry was the excessive legal battles over intellectual property. 3D Systems loved to sue companies for patent infringements instead of trying to work together with them, cross-licensing and collaborating on finding the best technologies.

Interestingly, it is the expiration of the many patents from the early era of the industry that will spawn the rapid expansion of the industry with many new technologies and investment dollars. Makes one challenge the notion of the true value of patents to the innovation process for emerging technologies.

The great news is that the additive manufacturing industry is like the great thoroughbred in the gate of the Kentucky Derby - it’s ready to run, win, and have a significant positive impact on the world.

If you would like to know more, check out my blog at ronhollis.blog.quickparts.com. Or for other great topics on product development, then check out the Quickparts.com (www.quickparts.com) encyclopedia for more information or get a hot copy of Better Be Running! Tools to Drive Design Success at www.betterberunning.com.

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